—In the campaign against dreariness in life, and particularly in literature, which Miss Repplier is prosecuting with so much wit and wisdom, it seems to me that some confusion arises from the use of such words as “ pleasant ” and “ disagreeable ” as if they were absolute terms.
Obviously, whether Ghosts is a pleasant or a disagreeable play to me lies in me. Of course we have certain commonly understood associations with these words, and a habit of using them as if they were absolute. We all agree to call a grassy old apple orchard on a bright May day pleasant, and a squalid American city street on a rainy November afternoon disagreeable ; but as a matter of fact there might arise a loathful being who would say he enjoyed the latter scene better than the first. He would be apt to leave conventional verbal associations undisturbed, and, though the contradiction of terms might be too potent if he used the word “ disagreeable,” to express his preference by saying he liked dreariness ; but it is clear that the real state of the case would be that he found pleasant what others find unpleasant.
To make the analogy complete between him and the mass of English-speaking readers who seek what we agree to call the disagreeable in literature, he should, to be sure, give himself high moral airs, and say that he walks that street through that November rain because he is studying humanity under these peculiar conditions for the good of generations yet unborn. That statement would have at least a negative plausibility to the many people who are unable to imagine any other reason for his course, but I have a greater faith in the eccentricity of taste than in the proneness of man to do what he does not want to. It is my profound conviction that he walks there because he likes it.
But to drop him, and turn directly to the devotees of ugly art (God save the mark !), I believe that the Ibsen cult and the Tolstoï cult and various other cults that are weariness to my flesh have their roots in genuine enjoyment. The old Adam in man is more to be depended upon than Miss Repplier thinks. If this aspect of him be declared an intolerable exhibition of bad taste, that is another matter, and one that I must say it seems to me very difficult to set right. Taste is like the wind that bloweth where it listeth, and very few men indeed know whence it cometh or whither it goeth ; and when they know, I still can’t see what they are going to do about it.
But I always find it a cheerful hour when lofty hypocritical pretensions are unmasked, and I should like to see the people who read Zola forced to admit that they do so for the same reason that I read Stockton. Then I should confess that, though I approve of Zola, I do not read him because I do not enjoy him. Such is my undisciplined nature. Probably comparatively few people are very sorely duty-ridden about the big Frenchman. For some reason, the women’s clubs have not yet taken up courses of his novels ; but I admit that I think there are numbers of good people perusing Ibsen and Browning who do not like them, — that is the way they are cozened by those who do, and who give false reasons, or reasons very limitedly true, for the faith that is in them. Still, if I distrust the attachment of Browning Societies to Browning, I am confident of their pleasure in their own sessions. It may not be very high-colored or exhilarating, but you may be sure that for the most part it is the best that is for the time being open to them.
I know a young woman, an unusually intellectual one, who has no other use for Browning than to find in him — in Sordello chiefly, of course — historical allusions that she does not understand, and can then hunt up. Perhaps she would deny that herein lay the core of her devotion to her poet; but I am not sure of it, for she has an uncommon capacity for telling the truth. As a fact, the game delights her much as my dog is delighted when I throw sticks in the water for him to fetch out. Life is governed to an awful extent by the little games silently carried on in the minds of mankind (games in the legitimate infantine sense), — little games in brokers’ minds, and railroad presidents’ minds, and prime ministers’ minds ; and this is one of her pet games, called by herself and her friends, properly enough, a taste for learning. You may say that great Cæsar, dead and turned to clay, and stopping a hole to keep the wind away, was not more degraded from his high empire than are Browning and Shakespeare when used for such ends ; but so long as they have the advantage over Cæsar, inasmuch as they remain in power, unharmed by this sort of desecration, why should we complain ? Chacun à son goût. Another uncommonly bright acquaintance, with a genius for gayety, illustrates my point still better, for she is a frank traitor to the solemnly pretentious court in which, in literary matters, she nevertheless trains. She devours all dreary stories whose dreariness is backed by any ability. Mr. Howe’s Story of a Country Town is her idea of a rare feast. This is not a game, — she is not trying to see how many dreary stories she can find ; it is a genuine literary predilection ; and as for years she has not been able to read a chapter of Scott, she speculates on the probable viciousness of her taste. I don’t suppose she would say that her favorite literature directly either cheers or consoles her, — how could she ? Neither does she talk the jargon about art for art’s sake. That is another phase of the solemn pretense I profess to expose, and which, more than the moralist’s preaching, fails to explain anything. Of course art is for art’s sake ; all the world has generally acted on that belief ; it is only when you are on the other side that you need to announce yourself ; and how does that formula explain the business to those who find your art inartistic ? My lady does not try to explain ; she leaves that to the theorists. She simply says, what others feel, that she likes it, she is entertained; and all she pleads is the right (within the acknowledged limits) to get her entertainment where she can.
I myself know a little of the matter from the inside. I went one night, not long ago, to see an excellent German company in a play by Björnson,— I do not recall its name. The great scene turned on a contest between two men as to a matter of financial business. It gave what actors call fine opportunities ; murder and suicide were every moment imminent, and the illusion of reality was very strong. I was delighted, and then and there talked a deal of nonsense about its merits,—though in its way it was a good scene. It was not till I got home that I saw that my impression was largely reactionary. It was the result of several years’ hack work at the theatres in the service of the daily press. That scene was fresh ; it appropriated to the service of art a bit of life not commonly so used, and in some respects it did it well, and it was a thing to be praised — with moderation. It could not for a moment compare with one where, with anything like equal technical skill, the poetical or romantic phases of love and hate, hope and fear, are given play ; and that is where the rawest country school-girl’s first instincts would have been nearer right than mine. It bespoke much more expenditure of brain on the part of the author than does some well-carpentered claptrap bit of old-fashioned melodrama which I find sickening, but I seriously question if, according to those absolute standards which we can only vaguely imagine, it is as good art.
I once heard a great painter say of the Tanegra statuettes, “ Oh, they are all delightful ; even when they are not good they show the effect of such good traditions.” I think the Lights of London shows (dimly, I admit) good theatrical traditions. I think Ibsen’s plays show first, not great ethical aims, but the reactionary movement of the artist’s mind against traditions that have grown odious to him through their frequent mechanical application. But these traditions are based in the abiding tastes of human nature and the inalienable conditions of histrionic art, while some of us fear so much cannot be said of The Doll’s House.
When a number of artists and patrons of artists of any time or place react against fundamental artistic instincts, the result is a decadent art, and decadence, there as always, is the child of satiety. And now, alas ! after all this, I must say (though I have never happened to have that experience) that I know I should joy in seeing Ibsen played. What is to be done about it ? We are what we are, and the reason why lies mainly beyond our will. I have been a hack critic in a world of sorry plays, and this passion for novelty is the mark of the beast upon me.
I can only comfort myself by reflecting that the audience for the world’s art is grown so large and scattered, and exists under such varied conditions, that we are not likely all to decay at once, and that as out of this same audience comes the world’s artists, there may still be the glorious cakes and ale of art, though some of us have grown dyspeptic, and claim (not so shamefacedly as we should) the rights of invalids to camomile tea or water gruel.