Christmas and the Literature of Disillusion

“The Christmas creed is a reasonable one and keeps close to the every-day facts. It is not the assertion that there is no evil, but it is the assertion that we may overcome evil with good.”

Library of Congress

“What makes the book so cross?” asked the youngest listener, who had for a few minutes, for lack of anything better to do, been paying some slight attention to the reading that was intended for her elders.

It was a question which we had not been bright enough to ask. We had been plodding on with the vague idea that it was a delightful book. Certainly the subject was agreeable. The writer was taking us on a ramble through the less frequented parts of Italy. He had a fine descriptive power and made us see the quiet hill towns, the old walls, the simple peasants, the white Umbrian cattle in the fields. It was just the sort of thing that should have brought peace to the soul; but it didn’t.

The author had the trick of rubbing his subject the wrong way. Everything he saw seemed to suggest something just the opposite. When every prospect pleased, he took offense at something that wasn’t there. He was himself a favored man of leisure; and could go where he pleased and stay as long as he liked. Instead of being content with a short Pharisaic prayer of thanksgiving that he was not as other men, he turned to berate the other men, who in New York were, at that very moment, rushing up and down the crowded streets in the frantic haste to be rich. He treated their fault as his misfortune. Indeed, it was unfortunate that the thought of their haste should spoil the serenity of his contemplation. His fine sense for the precious in art led him to seek the untrodden ways. He indulged in bitter gibes at the poor taste of the crowd. In some far-away church, just as he was getting ready to enjoy a beautifully faded picture on the wall, he caught sight of a tourist. He was only a mild-mannered man with an apologetic air, as one who would say, “Let me look too. I mean no harm.”

It was a meek effort at appreciation, but to the gentleman who wrote the book it was an offense. Here was a spy from “the crowd,” an emissary of “the modern.” By and by the whole pack would be in full cry and the lovely solitude would be no more. Then the author wandered off through the olives, where under the unclouded Italian sky he could see the long line of the Apennines, and there he meditated on the insufferable smoke of Sheffield and Pittsburg.

The young critic was right, the author was undoubtedly “cross.” In early childhood this sort of thing is well understood, and called by its right name. When a small person starts the day in a contradictory mood and insists on taking everything by the wrong handle, — he is not allowed to flatter himself that he is a superior person with a “temperament,” or a fine thinker with a gift for righteous indignation. He is simply set down as cross. It is presumed that he got up the wrong way, and he is advised to try again and see if he cannot do better. If he is fortunate enough to be thrown into the society of his contemporaries, he is subjected to a course of salutary discipline. No mercy is shown to “cross-patch.” He cannot present his personal grievances to the judgment of his peers, for his peers refuse to listen. After a while he becomes conscious that his wrath defeats itself, as he hears the derisive couplet:

Johnny’s mad,
And I am glad.

What’s the use of being unpleasant any longer if it only produces such unnatural gayety in others. At last, as a matter of self-defense, he puts on the armor of good-humor which alone is able to protect him from the attacks of his adversaries.

But when a person has grown up and is able to express himself in literary language, he is freed from these wholesome restraints. He may indulge in peevishness to his heart’s content, and it will be received as a sort of esoteric wisdom. For we are simple-minded creatures, and prone to superstition. It is only a few thousand years since the alphabet was invented, and the printing press is still more recent. There is still a certain Delphic mystery about the printed page which imposes upon the imagination. When we sit down with a book, it is hard to realize that we are only conversing with a fellow-being who may know little more about the subject in hand than we do, and who is attempting to convey to us not only his life-philosophy, but also his aches and pains, his likes and dislikes, and the limitations of his own experience. When doleful sounds come from the oracle, we take it from granted that something is the matter with the universe, when all that has happened is that one estimable gentleman, on a particular morning, was out of sorts when he took pen in hand.

At Christmas time, when we naturally want to be on good terms with our fellow-men, and when our pursuit of happiness takes the unexpectedly genial form of plotting for their happiness, the disposition of our favorite writers becomes a matter of great importance to us. A surly, sour-tempered person, taking advantage of our confidence, can turn us against our best friends. If he has an acrid wit he may make us ashamed of our highest enthusiasms. He may so picture human life as to make the message “Peace on earth, good will to men” seem a mere mockery.

I have a friend who has in him the making of a popular scientist, having an easy flow of extemporaneous theory, so that he is never closely confined to his facts. One of his theories is that pessimism is purely a literary disease and that it can only be conveyed through the printed page. In having a single means of infection it follows the analogy of malaria, which in many respects it resembles. No mosquito, no malaria; so no book, no pessimism. Of course you must have a particular kind of mosquito and he must have got the infection somewhere; but that is his concern, not yours. The important thing for you is that he is the middleman on whom you depend for the disease. In like manner, so my friend asserts, the writer is the middleman through whom the public gets its supply of pessimism.

I am not prepared to give an unqualified assent to this theory, for I have known some people who were quite illiterate who held very gloomy views in regard to the world in general. At the same time it seems to me there is something in it.

When an unbookish individual is in the dumps, he is conscious of his own misery, but he doesn’t attribute it to all the world. The evil is narrowly localized. He sees the dark side of things because he is so unluckily placed that that alone is visible, but he is quite ready to believe that there is a bright side somewhere.

I remember several pleasant half-hours spent in front of a cabin on the top of a far western mountain. The proprietor of the cabin, who was known as “Pat,” had dwelt there in solitary happiness until an intruder came and settled near by. There was incompatibility of temper, and a feud began. Henceforth Pat had a grievance, and when a sympathetic traveler passed by, he would pour out the story of his woes; for like the wretched man of old he meditated evil on his bed against his enemy. And yet, as I have said, the half-hours spent in listening to these tirades were not cheerless, and no bad effects followed. Pat never impressed me as being inclined to misanthropy; in fact, I think he might have been set down as one who loved his fellow-men, always excepting the unlucky individual who lived next to him. He never imputed the sins of this particular person to Humanity. There was always a sunny margin of good-humor around the black object of his hate. In this respect Pat was angry and sinned not. After listening to his vituperative eloquence I would ride on in a hopeful frame of mind. I had seen the worst and was prepared for something better. It was too bad that Pat and his neighbor did not get on better together. But this was an incident which did not shut out the fact that it was a fine day, and that some uncommonly nice people might live on the other side of the range.

But if Pat had possessed a high degree of literary talent, and had written a book, I am sure the impression would have been quite different. Two loveless souls, living on top of a lonely mountain, with the pitiless stars shining down on their futile hate! What theme could be more dreary. After reading the first chapter I should be miserable.

“This,” I should murmur, “is Life. There are the two symbolic figures, — Pat and the Other. The artist, with relentless sincerity, refuses to allow our attention to be distracted by the introduction of any characters unconnected with the sordid tragedy. Here is human nature stripped of all its pleasant illusions. What a poor creature is man!”

Pat and his neighbor, having become characters in a book, are taken as symbols of humanity, just as the scholastic theologians argued that Adam and Eve, being all that there were at the time, should be treated as “all mankind,” at least for purposes of reprobation.

The author who is saddest when he writes takes us at a disadvantage. He may assert that he is only telling us the truth. If it is ugly that is not his fault. He pictures to us the thing he sees, and if we could free ourselves from our sentimental preference for what is pleasing we should praise him for his fidelity.

“You doubtless,” says the cross writer, “would like to have us turning out endless Christmas carols, and at regular intervals call out ‘God bless Us, Every One.’ It would be agreeable to you to have us adopt permanently the point of view of Scrooge when, after his melodramatic transformation, ‘he went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up into the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.’ If you think we are going to supply you with that sort of thing you are mistaken. If you want something ‘strong,’ or ‘sincere,’ or heart-rending or disillusioning we are prepared to meet you. But no more Christmas caroling, — that has gone out.”

In all this the author is well within his rights. If he prefers unmitigated gloom in his representations of life, we on our part have the right of not taking him too seriously. Speaking of disillusion, two can play at that game. We must get over our too romantic attitude toward literature. We must not exaggerate the significance of what is presented to us, and treat that which is of necessity partial as if it were universal. When we are presented with a poor and shabby world, peopled only with sordid self-seekers, we need not be unduly depressed. We take the thing for what it is, a fragment. We are not looking directly at the world but only at so much of it as has been mirrored in one particular mind. The mirror is not a very large one, and there is an obvious flaw in it which more or less distorts the image. Still let us be thankful for what is set before us and make allowance for the natural human limitations. In this way one can read almost any sincere book, not only with profit but with a certain degree of pleasure.

Let us remember that only a very small amount of good literature falls within Shelley’s definition of poetry as “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” For these rare outpourings of joyous, healthy life we are duly thankful. They are to be received as gifts of the gods, but we must not expect too many of them. Even the best minds often leave no record of their happiest moments, while they become garrulous over what displeases them. The cave of Adullam has always been the most prolific literary centre. Every man who has a grievance is fiercely impelled to self-expression. He is not content till hsi grievance is published to the unheeding world. And it is well that it is so. We should be in a bad way if it were not for these inspired Adullamites who prevent us from resting in slothful indifference to evil.

Most writers of decided individuality are incited by a more or less iconoclastic impulse. THere is an idol they want to smash, a conventional lie which they want to expose. It is the same impulse which moves almost every right-minded citizen, once or twice in his life, to write a letter of protest to the newspaper. Things are going wrong in his neighborhood and he is impatient to set them right.

There are enough real grievances, and the full expression of them is a public service. But the trouble is that any one who develops a decided gift in that direction is in danger of becoming the victim of his own talent. Eloquent fault-finding becomes a mannerism. The original grievance loses its sharp outlines; it, as it were, passes from the solid to the gaseous state. It becomes vast, pervasive, atmospheric. It is like the London fog, enveloping all objects and causing the eyes of those who peer through it to smart.

This happened, in the last generation, to Carlyle and Ruskin, and in a certain degree to Matthew Arnold. Each had his group of enthusiastic disciples who responded eagerly to their master’s call. They renounced shams or machine-made articles or middle-class Philistinism as the case might be. They went in for sincerity, or Turner, or “sweetness and light,” with all the ardor of youthful neophytes. And it was good for them. But after a while they became, if not exactly weary in well-doing, at least a little weary of the intermittent tirades against ill-doing. They were in the plight of the good Christian who goes to church every Sunday only to hear the parson rebuke the sins of the people who are not there. The man who dated his moral awakening from Sartor Resartus began to find the Latter Day Pamphlets wear on his nerves. It is good to be awakened; but one doesn’t care to have the rising bell rung in his ears all day long. One must have a little ease, even in Zion.

Ruskin had a real grievance and so had Matthew Arnold. It is too bad that so much modern work is poorly done; and it is too bad that the middle-class Englishman has a number of limitations that are quite obvious to his candid friends, — and that his American cousin is no better.

But when all this has been granted why should one talk as if everything were going to the dogs? Why not put a cheerful courage on as we work for better things? Even the Philistine has his good points and perhaps may be led where he cannot be driven. At any rate he is not likely to be improved by scolding.

I am beginning to feel the same way even about Ibsen. Time was when he had an uncanny power over my imagination. He had the word of a disenchanter. Here, I said, is one who has the gift of showing us the thing as it is. There is not a single one of these characters whom we have not met. Their poor shifts at self-deceit are painfully familiar to us. In the company of this keen-eyed detective we can follow human selfishness and cowardice through all their disguises. The emptiness of conventional respectabilities and pieties, and the futility of the spasmodic attempts at heroism are obvious enough.

It was an eclipse of my faith in human nature. The eclipse was never total because the shadow of the book could not quite hide the thought of various men and women whom I had actually known. This formed the luminous penumbra.

After a while I began to recover my spirits. Why should I be so depressed? This is a big world and there is room in it for many possibilities of good and evil. There are all sorts of people, and their existence is no argument against the existence of quite another sort.

Let us take realism in literature for what is and no more. It is, at best, only a description of an infinitesimal bit of reality. The more minutely accurate it is, the more limited it must be in its field. You must not expect to get a comprehension view through a high-powered microscope. The author is severely limited, not only by his choice of a subject but by his temperament and by his opportunities for observation. He is doing us a favor when he focuses his attention upon one special object and makes us see it clearly.

It is when the realistic writer turns philosopher and begins to generalize that we must be on our guard against him. He is likely to use his characters as symbols, and the symbolism becomes oppressive. There are some businesses which ought not to be united. They hinder healthful competition and produce a hateful monopoly. Thus in some states the railroads that carried coal also went into the business of coal-mining. This has been prohibited by law. It is held that the railroad, being a common carrier, must not be put into a position in which it will be tempted to discriminate in favor of its own products. For a similar reason it may be argued that it is dangerous to allow the dramatist or novelist to furnish us with a “philosophy of life.” The chances are that, instead of impartially fulfilling the duties of a common carrier, he will foist upon us his own goods and force us to draw conclusions from the samples of human nature he has in stock. I should not be willing to accept a philosophy of life even from so accomplished a person as Mr. G. Bernard Shaw; not because I doubt his cleverness in presenting what he sees, but because I have a suspicion that there are some very important things which he does not see.

It is really much more satisfactory for each one to gather his life philosophy from his own experience rather than from what he reads out of a book or from what he sees on the stage. “The harvest of a quiet eye” is, after all, more satisfying than the occasional discoveries of the unquiet eye that seeks only the brilliantly novel.

* * *

At Christmas time those of us who in our journey through the world have found some things which seem to us to be good, and which encourage us to hope for more good farther on, need not be greatly troubled by what is continually being written against our creed. For, after all, the Christmas creed is a reasonable one and keeps close to the every-day facts. It is not the assertion that there is no evil, but it is the assertion that we may overcome evil with good. Good-will is not a bit of weak sentimentalism; it is a force actively engaged in righting the wrongs it sees. A great fight has been going on; it calls for courage and endurance; but it is a good fight and we are glad that we are in it. Though it has looked desperate at times, we have the conviction that the good cause is going to win out.

When one whose business it is to report the varying phases of the world struggle describes the forces of evil with an intimacy of knowledge that is convincing, while the good is far in the background, we need not share his despondency. “What an excellent war correspondent,” we say; “how faithfully he tells what he sees! What a pity it is that he follows the wrong army!”