The New Paganism
BY ELLEN DUVALL
IF it be true that ‘man is a religious animal,’ it is more comprehensively true in the sense that he is a worshiping animal; and the instinctive god of his idolatry is Self. Man is a natural selfworshiper, and only religion of some sort can educate him out of this primitive, own-nature worship. In this regard we are all born pagans, and the history of civilization — whether it be of an individual or of the race — is just this development away from primitive self-worship. With many of us education or civilization fails of its object, and we remain to the end pagans. Generally our true quality is veiled from ourselves and others by conventions, by a decent regard for the opinion of the — always in our eyes duller majority, by a wholesome fear of the police, by intelligent self-interest of the better sort. Nevertheless, pagans we are and pagans we remain. Of course, the pagan has his divinity — a little personal fetish perhaps; the family lares and penates; the tribal deity; or any and every sort of god of the market place. But the indestructible evidence of paganism, sure as the Mark of the Beast in the forehead, is just this fixed attitude toward his divinity, Self. For your pagan always wants his god to be subservient, to be on his side, to be his tame confederate and aid; while revealed religion requires a change of heart, that God shall not serve man, but that man shall serve God — for love. ‘My son, give me thine heart.'
The world therefore knows just two prayers under which all others, from the beginning till the end of time, may be categoried: one, that of Ajax, the first word of which is supposed by some to have been inscribed over the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, ‘Oh, that the gods would empower me to obtain my wishes!’ — the typical, instinctive prayer of paganism; the other, ‘Thy will be done’ — the inculcated prayer of revealed religion. Here is a difference vast as that between Heaven and earth. Show a man’s religion, and you most truly show the man.
But it is the new paganism as expressed in present-day fiction that is of immediate interest; for there paganism surely reigns supreme. That our modern fiction holds the mirror up to nature, — pagan nature, — whether of the individual or of social groups, is fairly true; yet it is a menacing truth of disintegration and decay. Not that way does civilization tend, not that way can the race evolve and progress. Of course, the measure of the civilization of the individual is the measure of the civilization of the race. Given developed or civilized individuals, men and women, and we have a civilized people — ultimately perhaps a civilized world, or a preponderantly civilized world. And to the making of an effective and efficient people there must always go a certain degree of homogeneity — not necessarily homogeneousness of blood, but homogeneity of feeling and of thought, of mental vision, and of political and ethical ideals.
There is, however, a marked difference between the old and the new paganism, for while they both pray the prayer of Ajax,— ‘Oh, that the gods would empower me to obtain my wishes!’ — in the old paganism we see the beginnings of better things, the turn of the spiral toward wider and ascending life. Homer, in his character of Hector; Æschylus in his Prometheus; Sophocles in his Antigone; Euripides in his Alcestis, indeed in all his plays, charged as they are with the sense of justice; Aristotle and Plato in their speculations upon government or politics — all show the ideas and tendencies that have broadened out and bloomed in the civilization of to-day. Dimly yet surely the old paganism recognized, as Protagoras taught, that ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ that the individual is the unit of value of the social group, be it city, state, or nation. Dimly yet surely the old paganism recognized and taught that on the self-control of the individual depended the safely and welfare of the state. There was, therefore, constructive thinking in the old paganism; its vision was forward, it had hope and faith. In Greek thought man’s greatest sin — a root of all evil — was hubris, arrogancy, self-sufficiency, pride. To the new paganism man is still the measure of all things, but hubris has become the chief of virtues; in the new paganism man cannot be too arrogant, self-sufficient, and proud. Here the contrast between old and new is as direct as great. In the old paganism force was measured by resistance, strength by its power to withstand and to overcome; man was conceived of and represented as strong in proportion as he was self-controlled. More or less clearly did the old paganism perceive that life, whether individual or social, is not something that goes of itself, but is a definite result of deliberately exercised consciousness and will; and the more complex and civilized life is, the more must consciousness and will be used. Here it was that the best thought of paganism and the truth of Hebraism met and mingled; here imagination and revelation came together, and have flowered out into the civilization of to-day, the approximately Christian civilization of Western Europe.
In the new paganism all this is directly reversed. Life is assumed to go of itself; man’s instincts are represented as all-compelling; and his strength lies, not in the control, but in the letting-go, of his passions. Misled in part, perhaps, by Freudian psychology so-called, — which is no psychology at all, but simply a dull, materialistic, mechanistic theory of life, based on one animal instinct only, — our pagan fiction seems chiefly interested in man because of his capacity for concupiscence. The old story of Actæon, chased and destroyed by his own hounds, is as nothing to that of poor modern man as told in so much of to-day’s fiction, chased by one passion, one hound, and succumbing to it. And oh, the mortal dullness of so much modern paganism wherein man is depicted as a creature of one dimension only — that of sex. For in the wash of sex all things are wiped out, not only all trivial, fond records, but all distinctions and values, age-long history as well as the everyday experiences of fairly decent folk. And, with all due deference to present-day fiction and its unrelieved paganism, what it is doing has been so much better done elsewhere. For, if salacity is to be reckoned as also part of the fine art of fiction, then it is far better presented in the pages of the Restoration dramatists. There it is set down for what it is. There there is no pretense about it. It is conscious vice preferred to virtue, and it does not hypocritically mouth as being natural law, or all-compelling instinct. It betokens the manners of a corrupt court, and makes no pretense of representing the average life of the people. To ‘the great Goddess Lubricity,’ as Matthew Arnold called her, was erected only a temporary altar in a court more foreign than English. She belongs across the Channel, with another set of worshipers, belongs to L’Île des penguins, Thaïs, Les Dieux out soif, Madame Bovary — to a literature, however beautiful in mere words, that has a dire tendency to overemphasize the animal at the expense of the man. L’Homme machine of the eighteenth century, and la bête humaine of the nineteenth and early twentieth, are theories of man and life that beg nine tenths of the question, and are as exaggerated as they are inadequate.
Then, in contrast to the old paganism, where is the constructive thinking of the new? What is its vision, what its hope and faith, save in those naïve books where the utmost license of the individual is assumed to be the fitting and logical prelude to the perfect Social State? Can this be possible? Do our naïve pagans demand miracles on the one hand, and deny them on the other? Can men really gather figs of thistles and, from the bramble, grapes? For if there be anything in history as the registered experience of the race, — whether we be Pagans, Fundamentalists, or Modernists, — as men sow, so do they surely reap. And the perfect Social State, that fine political and economic daydream, can hardly evolve from the wallow of individual license.
Is it a constitutional incapacity for straight thinking, otherwise logic, — together with a plentiful lack of humor, — that so characterizes our pagans? If only they had a glint of humor now and then, how much more there would be in their woefully thin pages, how much we should be spared! For wherever there is a saving sense of humor it carries with it a sense of proportion, and the blessed combination of the two implies both sight and insight, seeing and perceiving, a native capacity for straight thinking. But naive incongruities, inconsistencies, monstrosities, gargoyle all the pages of our pagan fiction; and the drawing of individuals, of social groups, or of society at large, is often at best but unconscious caricature, or at worst is as awry as a child’s first attempts upon the nursery slate. For the mere heaping-together of external details does not of itself constitute Realism; that is made of sterner and finer stuff than our pagans deal in, and requires as much, if not more, imagination than Romanticism — the interpenetrative, scientific imagination, far removed from the drab and the unclean. For are these individuals, these situations, afforded us by our pagans probable, or even possible?
For instance, here is the old, readymade triangle — the lady, the lover, and the husband. This particular situation is done by a master in the deft conjury of words; very decorously done, too, for only recently is this master beginning to show evidences of the prevalent modern pagan mistake, the assumption that frankness of speech is equivalent to freshness of vision. The lady and the lover plan to fly, purposing to leave the lady’s house by water, and meet in the evening to carry out this intent. They get into a little boat. Suddenly the disagreeable husband, who has been covertly watching, appears. There is some sort of struggle; the boats are upset; and the poor lady incontinently drowns. Cooled by the catastrophe, husband and lover recover the body and, one at the feet and the other at the head, they carry her forth and lay her down on the bank. Then the lover gets into his righted boat and drops downstream — disappears, for the time being, into the velvety darkness. And the equally cooled reader pauses. Did it ever so happen? Are we moved, convinced, or even momentarily persuaded? Not at all — not nearly so much as if reading the Arabian Nights. To persuade of its truth to life is the least of fiction’s art; to convince and to compel is its highest power.
Another gifted writer — and our new pagans are all immensely clever in the mere things of sense-perception — chooses for her theme, under an honored and already used title, a situation prohibited by the Levitical decrees: an ex-lover of the mother is in danger of becoming the legal husband of the daughter. And the gist of the story lies in the mother’s torturing doubts as to whether to speak or to keep silence; to sacrifice the daughter’s happiness to truth and save the hideous situation, or to ensure the daughter’s happiness by silence. For one of the curious inconsistencies of our pagans is that they exalt happiness or self-gratification as the end and aim of living, and then make of happiness so poor and cheap a thing.
Another section of the new paganism, in its obsession with the ‘sex complex,’ is now beginning to treat us to the maternity craze or urge on the part of the ‘healthy, natural woman,’ — her desire to have a child without the incumbrance, or formality, of a legal husband, — and the collusive sympathy of the bystander, friend or father, with her very ‘natural’ desire. This situation is conceivable, — many situations are conceivable, — but did it ever exist on land or sea outside the harassed pagan brain? Do we know such young women, do we consort with them, are they bred up in our midst? It is only necessary to ask the question to have it answered. Literary art is one thing; pathology is quite another. Of course, plots are precious; there have never been enough to ‘go round,’ and our novelists are hard put to it to devise ways and means. But even so, and with all possible sympathy for them, they should remember and observe the inhibition laid down by Stendhal: ‘Remember, there are things that must never be written.’ He may have meant ineffable things that cannot be written, — ‘fancies that broke through language and escaped,’ — but it is as true of the lowest as of the highest, of the vilest as of the finest. There is a middle register, like the temperate zone, in which alone can a novelist with safety disport himself.
Courage, honor, faith, loyalty to high ideals, are all honored in the breach in our pagan fiction. ‘Life is a casket not precious in itself, but valuable only in proportion to what truth, honor, and industry have placed within it.’ But of this our new pagans seem to know nothing. It is hard to tell how they do conceive of life, under what images they would fain present it. Here is no spiral, only a vicious circle; no movement in the sense of direction, only a vain treading of water. And the mental and spiritual squalor to which we are introduced is heart-rending. It were fairly possible to live in Gopher Prairie on Main Street and yet find good in everything; but oh, the desolation of bearing about a Gopher Prairie and Main Street in one’s soul! For out of the abundance of the heart — or its leanness — does the mind conceive and the hand write. And where is the understanding heart? Do our new pagans ever perceive that with neither a philosophy nor a religion, with no power of constructive thinking, what they call their truth to nature — to the beast — is utter falsity to man; that they are in reality mental and moral anarchists doing far more mischief than can be wrought by political and economic anarchy?
Civilization, society, government, are held together by thought. Community of interests,— material, mental, spiritual, — in an ever-ascending, widening spiral, bind human life together. To work away consciously from the animal to the human means civilization. To represent the animal as paramount is absolutely unhistoric and untrue. To persuade men that they do, always have done, and may, relax, lower their guard, let go their hold, cease their vigilance with regard to personal selfcontrol, and then expect civilization and society to continue and to advance, is deadly. It is to destroy civilization from within. It is to hasten the sure coming of a political and economic anarchy— from which can there arise the perfect Social State? No — nothing but terrible despotisms of cruelty and darkness.