The Dance of Life
by Houghton, Mifflin Co. 1923. Large 8vo. xv+377 pp. $4.00.. Boston:
To read The Dance of Life is to observe civilization in perspective, for the author writes as though he did not live in our century — or indeed in any — but viewed all human experience from an external vantage point, above time. Speaking of our own days, he refers to the ‘artificial complexities of a temporary and, now it may be, departing civilization.'
His thesis is that life as a whole, not isolated parcels of it, should be regarded as an art. ‘ Religion or the desire for the salvation of souls, Art or the desire for beautification. Science or the search for the reasons of things — these conations of the mind, which are really three aspects of the same profound impulse, have been allowed to furrow, each its own . . . channel, in alienation from the others, and so . . . have . . . been impeded in their greater function of fertilizing life.’
This is the central thought whose implications are developed in several chapters: The Art of Dancing, The Art of Morals, The Art of Thinking, and others. ‘Dancing and building,’ the author asserts, ‘are the two primary and essential arts,’and the influence of the former he traces through the whole sweep of human development, showing that it was practised as a religious tribal rite among primitive peoples, and, even in the Roman Church, dining the Middle Ages, became intimately associated with worship. Also it has been deeply entwined with the emotion of love in all countries and in all ages. Dancing is ‘the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself. It is the only art, as Rahel Varnhagen said, of which we ourselves are the stuff.’
Hardly a subject — one might almost say hardly a great author or artist — is not touched upon in the sweep of the book: literature, æsthetics, the eight-hour day, Puritanism, eugenics, Remy de Gourmont, the politics of Aristotle, Einstein, the life of the Bantu savage. Yet the style is limpid and full of shifting colors, and all knowledge is subsidiary to the central theme.
He points out how close art is to science, and how close science to art. Darwin had the inventive imagination of a poet or artist, for ‘only a man so endowed could, from a suggestion received on reading Malthus, have conceived of natural selection.’ Of Einstein Ellis says: ‘He is disposed to regard many scientific discoveries, commonly regarded the work of pure thought, as really works of art.’ Again, of religion, he believes that, ‘if science is, as we have some reason to believe, an art, if mysticism also is an art, the opposition between science and religion can scarcely be radical, since they must both spring from the same root in natural human activity.’
In his ‘Conclusions,’ he illustrates and defines in some measure what he means by Art. ‘Art for art’s sake,’ said Nietzsche, is ‘a dangerous principle. . . . Art is . . . fulfilling its function the more completely, the more deeply it enables us to penetrate into life.’
This is a book for those who have some knowledge and little wisdom, — and that is most of us, — for the author has much of both. It is the latest, the most comprehensive utterance of a great humanist of our time. CHARLES R. WALKER.