Past and Present


THE most interesting literary question of the present is the question whether there exists a new literature of some importance which is unlike any that has been written before. This question has never been considered objectively; perhaps by a contemporary it cannot be. In a book of essays called Transition and published about a year ago, I made an attempt, with but indifferent success, to do so; but when I wrote it I was too much under the influence of current hopes and judgments, and my arguments were consequently falsified. I cannot pretend that in the ensuing essay I attain impartiality; but any attempt to be impartial is salutary, and at present attempts of this kind seem to be singularly few.

Trying to be objective, then, one sees that there are two bodies of opinion on the subject. There are the critics, such as Mr. T. S. Eliot, Mr. Ezra Pound, Mrs. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Herbert Read, and Mr. Ford Madox Ford, who assume with more or less confidence that there is a new literature, and disdain, either fiercely like Mr. Pound, or with reasonable reservations like Mrs. Woolf, those who are not in it or on the side of it. On the other hand are those, like Mr. J. C. Squire, Sir Edmund Gosse, and Mr. Edward Shanks, who either ignore this new literature or consider it so unimportant that a jest can dispose of it. Apart from these schools are one or two critics, of whom Mr. Van Wyck Brooks in America and Mr. Middleton Murry in England are the chief, who are not prejudiced against the new, but are too much concerned with other problems, perhaps more important, to give their attention to it.

Characteristic of the first school are such declarations as Mr. Pound’s that ‘Mr. Wyndham Lewis has in Timon gathered together his age, or at least our age, our generation,’ and such acts as Mr. Eliot’s drawing up of a list showing which writers exemplify the spirit of the age and which do not. The second school wall not be too unfairly represented by Sir Edmund Gosse’s reported answer to a French journalist who asked whether so-and-so was the greatest living English writer: ‘Never heard of him. I suppose he’s one of those young writers. There are so many of them!’ The third pair need not detain us, for they are not implicated in the dispute, or the illusion, if it is such.

Considering these two sets of opposing critics, one may say that what distinguishes the first is fanaticism, accompanied as fanaticism often is by a strict dogmatism, this dogmatism producing in turn a peculiarly intellectual arrogance not incompatible with shyness in its holders, and involving with it a necessary blindness to everything not covered by the dogma. The critic of this school will have sweeping antipathies, which he will transform into principles of evil. For instance, he will see romanticism, which he dislikes, not as a legitimate expression of the human spirit, or as almost the half of literature, but as an error. We shall find in him, that is to say, an obstinacy firm enough to damn a whole body of literature, combined with a blindness so remarkable that he does not see the greatness of this literature, and a narrowness so exclusive that he has no desire to share in it.

Turning to the second set of critics, we shall find that, while in considering past literature they evince a mood of enthusiasm or of satisfaction, to all contemporary literature which does not sufficiently resemble the productions of the past they are essentially indifferent. Narrow fanaticism and blank indifference — these are the moods of the two hostile bodies of opinion. Both sides are blinded — the one by their hopes, the other by their fears. Standing outside, one can accept Mr. Eliot’s strict dogmatism as little as Sir Edmund Gosse’s easy obscurantism. The one is as sectarian as the other.


Ignoring, then, these two camps who, ever hostile, ever ignore each other, — ignoring them not because their observations are shallow or irrelevant, but because they are either esoteric and intended for a few, or else popular and intended for nobody, — let us take a small definite test and try to discover as nearly as possible, first whether there is anything new in contemporary literature, and then whether that is of much importance. Mr. James Joyce will serve admirably as a representative of the new; for the traditional, both ancient and modern, we shall take a random lot of writers of various degrees of merit. Then, if there is no very salient difference among these, and a perceptible difference between them and Mr. Joyce, we may decide that in some sense there is an existent new literature. Afterward we may consider wherein the novelty of this literature consists, and finally we may try to judge of its importance and guess at what it is making toward.

The following are the passages, taken at random from five writers: —

1. In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence. . . . After wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought — reconsidering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself, as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important, fatigue, and a recollection of her long absence, made her at length return home; and she entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation.

2. He thought her in fact the most disagreeable young person whom he had ever met. He was accustomed to see women of very much greater consequence than this girl show at any rate a certain gratification at being thought worthy of his attentions. She would not, he felt, have dared to treat him so rudely but for the present eclipse of his fortunes. He was not used to being regarded so lightly, and it upset him. . . . Suddenly one of the cords of the screen of state behind which she was sitting fell across her zithern, making as it did so a sort of casual time. As she bent over the instrument he saw her for an instant just as she must look when carelessly and at ease she swept an idle plectrum over the strings. He was captivated.

3. He had taken hold of her, and she liked that; it warmed her as much as anything could warm her, but there was nothing about her holding on to him if presently he let go. She was, I had long realised, a creature of fine secondary shades and complicated shynesses and reserves, and I have never known anyone with a less voracious will to live.

I doubted from the first whether he appreciated her fine shades. His natural disposition was towards poster colourings more suitable for display. But gradually I came to see that it was not the delicacy nor the fine shades that he cared about. He had a profound unshakeable belief in her honesty, loyalty, and commonsense, and she justified his belief. Whatever else she may or may not have been to him, she was, so to speak, his treasury, his brake, his wary councillor. And though she was never a brilliant talker in society, I noted that when he quoted her sayings and cited her opinions, there came out a shrewd individuality quite different from his own.

4. Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they could not help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absentmindedly — of course it wasn’t ubsentmindedly — taking another helping. Josephine got very red when this happened, and she fastened her small, bead-like eyes on the tablecloth as if she saw a minute strange insect creeping through the web of it. But Constantia’s long, pale face lengthened and set, and she gazed away — away — far over the desert to where that line of camels unwound like a thread of wool.

5. He looked at the cattle, blurred in silver heat. Silver powdered olive-trees. Quiet long days: pruning ripening. Olives are packed in jars, eh? I have a few left from Andrews. Molly spitting them out. Knows the taste of them now. Oranges in tissue paper packed in crates. Citrons too. Wonder is poor Citron still alive in Saint Kevin’s parade. And Mastiansky with the old cither. Pleasant evenings we had then. Molly in Citron’s basketchair. Nice to hold, cool waxen fruit, hold in the hand, lift it to the nostrils and smell the perfume. Like that, heavy, sweet, wild perfume. Always the same, year after year. They fetched high prices too Moisel told me. Arbutus place; Pleasants street: pleasant old times. Must be without a flaw, he said. Coming all that way: Spain, Gibraltar, Mediterranean, the Levant. Crates lined up on the quayside at Jaffa, chap ticking them off in a book, navvies handling them in soiled dungarees. There’s whatdoyoucallhim out of. How do you? Does n’t see. Chap you know just to salute bit of a bore. His back is like the Norwegian captain’s. Wonder if I’ll meet him to-day. Watering cart. To provoke the rain. On earth as it is in heaven.

These, then, are the five passages which may serve as a rough test, necessarily tentative. If in our examination of them we succeed in showing that the difference between the first four and the fifth implies other differences between them which do seem to exist, we shall have started an inquiry which might be taken up again.

In the first four we shall see that, in spite of many individual differences, the aim of the writers, and consequently their methods, are much the same. That aim I shall call concentration, and the method synthesis. Everything that may serve to make the mood or situation more definite is massed and oriented, until an intense point is readied which makes all the surrounding detail clear. The passages show that this method has been pursued for a long time, and has persisted as the main tradition until recently.

The first passage is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, written a century ago. The second is from Lady Murasaki’s The Sacred Tree, written in Japan nine hundred years ago, and now available in Mr. Arthur Waley’s translation. The third is from Mr. H. G. Wells’s The World of William Clissold, the fourth from Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, the fifth from Mr. James Joyce’s Ulysses. The first two passages are very alike, except for the zithern; in aim and method they are essentially the same. The third passage is looser; the method remains the same, but it is disintegrating; we have the confused questioning of such phrases as ’ fine secondary shades and complicated shynesses and reserves’; vague adjectives take the place of concrete delineation. The fourth passage, though resembling Jane Austen, inaugurates in the last sentence a new method which begins where Mr. Wells left off. Yet essentially the aim and method in all these passages are the same: concentration is sought by means of synthesis.

We come now to the fifth passage. It certainly differs from the other four passages in a sense in which they do not differ from each other. For here the aim is not concentration but diffusion, the method not synthesis but analysis. Seeing cattle pass, Mr. Joyce’s character thinks of olive trees; these suggest various kinds of fruit; the word ‘citron’ calls up the memory of a man called Citron; he in turn evokes other recollections; then external things, an acquaintance passing, a watering cart, cut across the associations, starting others, until the irrelevant but accounted-for phrase is reached, ’On earth as it is in heaven.’ The first three writers I have quoted never attempted to follow the turns of the disengaged mind in this way; reading them, one might easily conclude that they were unaware of these floating thoughts, or considered them not worth attending to. The fourth writer was aware of them, and as she developed made more and more use of them. Mr. Joyce has exploited them thoroughly and at great length. But he is not the only contemporary who has done this; in different ways it has been done by Mr. D. H. Lawrence, Mrs. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dorothy Richardson, Mr. Aldous Huxley, and Mr. Sacheverell Sitwell in All Summer in a Day. In poetry one might mention Mr. T. S. Eliot, Miss Edith Sitwell, Mr. Robert Graves, and a number of others.

This coming to prominence of the floating images of the mind may be called new, then. These images have been used before, of course, preeminently by such writers as Sterne and Jean Paul Richter, but generally for the ends of comedy. Never till now has such serious attention been concentrated upon them, nor till now have they seemed so important.

The next question is whether this serious concentration on the apparently irrelevant responses of the mind is a significant novelty. This is at present, with the evidence at our disposal, unanswerable. Those who consider Mr. Joyce a great writer will be in little doubt about it. Those who hold that he has failed, and failed because the attempt was impossible, will have even less doubt. Nothing that one could write at present would do much more than confirm both parties in their opinion.

But, leaving this aside, there is one sense, at any rate, in which the new attempt is significant. It is significant as the expression of a growing attitude. In no other age could Ulysses have appeared, or on its appearance have been understood by the small number of people who at present understand it. The interest was lacking even thirty years ago, and only since that time has it come to the front. This interest is general; during the same time science has shown it perceptibly; and the works of Dr. Freud and Dr. Jung belong to the same current as those of Mr. Joyce and Mr. Lawrence. Psychoanalysis is still in its infancy; but it is working itself out, and as it does this the situation will change, and the literary response necessarily change with it. The present literary tendency, then, has some importance for us; but it has a possible importance also, given to it by a goal in the future which it is making toward and may reach.


In speculating upon what it is making toward I can no longer point to verifiable facts, and the rest of this essay must be tentative. I will start with the axiom that the new element in literature has not modified literature decisively enough to produce a ‘new form.’ The last two decades have seen many attempts to create one; it has actually seen none valid even to the few who desire it to appear. Take Ulysses again. In its imaginative pattern it is no more necessarily one work than it is ten. One can take one section, such as the scene in the pub, or the nightmare scene, or Mrs. Bloom’s soliloquy, and it will actually have a greater unity than the work as a whole. One can combine several chapters— the first three, for example — and the effect will be as congruous without the succeeding chapters as with them. There is, indeed, nothing to make the book the size it is except Mr. Joyce’s determination to record a day of Dublin life. The plan of Ulysses, of which so much has been said, is mechanical purely; it is imposed from the outside without reference to the drama which should really determine the structure of the book. Useful to the author doubtless, as helping him to keep the formlessness of the book within bounds, it is no more an element in the novel itself than the papers and inks of different colors which Mr. Joyce is supposed to have used.

Turning to The Waste Land of Mr. Eliot, we see that its plan, too, is external. This plan had a use to the author; it has no significance for the reader. Again like Ulysses, this poem is as validly several works as one. Any construction Mr. Eliot may say it has is a construction without development, which is an absurdity. The design is not worked out in the poem; it is an ideal scheme referring to it. This scheme is only an explanation of the work itself, somewhat like the answers to problems at the end of an arithmetic book.

Here, then, is the point where the new attempt has failed most disastrously. A new construction, a new form, has not been worked out; but construction of some kind a work of art must have, so the old traditional construction is pressed into service, though it is quite unsuitable, and we have only the authors’ conviction that it is there. The problem created by the inclusion of the new element has, in other words, not been solved at all.

That new element is the subconscious as modern knowledge has modified it. How much do we know about it? The one thing which Freud has demonstrated conclusively is that our most apparently irrelevant thoughts have a logic and a meaning; that there is nothing one thinks, voluntarily or involuntarily, asleep or awake, which is not related to one’s personality, and for that reason to one’s actions. If we turn to Mr. Joyce now, we shall see that the subconscious as he portrays it has hardly any relation to the actions of his characters at all; it changes without meaning or aim, and changing in this way it really makes all deliberate action meaningless. It may have moods which vary with external events, but there is no value or significance in its alterations, any more than there is in the behavior of t he stomach, which may be equally deranged by overeating or by a disappointment in love. Everything is made blunt and vague rather than emphasized and pointed. One action is as important as another, and all actions are in a sense irrelevant, seeing that a whole series of them, of very different value to the conscious personality, are here indistinguishable in their effects. Action, in everything that gives it meaning, is out of place in Ulysses, and consequently development, crisis, catharsis, all that constitutes construction, is equally so. But to say that is to say that Ulysses has never been integrated at all, has never been created as a work of art.

When we read Freud we discover that the subconscious is subtle, exact, and necessitated; when we read Mr. Joyce we get the impression that it is blunt, vague, and irrelevant. Freud shows it determining our smallest actions, our gestures, our health, our ideas, our aims; Mr. Joyce shows it going away on a journey of its own in a studied disregard for us. In this picture of an arbitrary conscious on the one hand and an irrelevant unconscious on the other, nothing important is accounted for, neither personality, nor action, nor feeling, nor thought, all of which require both factors to be conceivable; and we feel that the author has been merely interested in the subconscious, or alert to exploit it, but that he has had no more serious aim. The synthesis of intuitions which gives the artist his starting point he has avoided with great skill and at inordinate length; and his plethora of styles in Ulysses is a device to hide the fact that he is merely playing with his theme and has not tackled it decisively.

The gaping fault in works such as Ulysses and The Waste Land should now be clear enough. It is that the subconscious as shown in them is never squared with the conscious. These two elements of personality are set down side by side, and each makes the other incomprehensible. They are unrelated, like raw facts before the scientist has seen the connection between them; yet it is clear that they must be related before the artist can begin to write with understanding of human experience. If he writes without relating them, it means literally that he has not accounted for anything he writes about; for conduct, feeling, thought, egoism, desire, continuity of personality; for the elementary facts of human life. And when he writes, not having accounted for them, his work will inevitably have something of the quality of automatic writing. In some of the sequences in The Waste Land there is the dreamlike irrelevance of automatic writing, and since he finished Ulysses Mr. Joyce’s writing has become almost entirely automatic. He has not tried to grasp the issues of life; he has nothing consciously to say, therefore; and the only relief is to let the subconscious speak for itself, whether it can be understood or not.

The intensified concern with the subconscious, then, is responsible for both what is new and what is disastrous in contemporary literature. The problem that awaits the future writer is whether, given as much prominence as Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot give it, the subconscious can be integrated with the conscious. If that can be done, personality, action, cause and effect, will come back into literature, and with them a new construction, a new form. In saying this I assume that the present literary experiment can be carried further, and is not an impossible one. This, of course, cannot be demonstrated, but it is not improbable. On the other hand it is possible that the whole experiment will prove abortive; but even so it is bound to leave some effect behind.

I have tried to prove that the attempt is in one sense new. The presumption, I think, is that it is potentially important.