ACCORDING to the lexicographers, cacoethes is an ill habit, or the itch for doing something unadvisable; and they invariably add: ‘as in scribendi cacoethes, scribbling mania.’ Why is this the inevitable illustration? Why have these words been so long and so intimately associated? Dictionaries are social as well as etymological histories, summing up briefly the garnered wisdom of the ages upon innumerable subjects; and the deduction in this case is that the itch for writing lias always been regarded, not only as an affliction, but as the most contagious and prevalent of afflictions.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that ‘itch,’ ‘mania,’ ‘ill habit,’ are misleading terms, by no means descriptive of a malady which, in its higher manifestations, is one of the noblest of all the diseases of the human spirit. Now and then, to be sure, even an illustrious victim speaks of it as though it were, in truth, nothing but a disgusting irritation, something to be ashamed of. Tolstoy, for example, in a letter written in mid-course of his career, said. ‘I abstain from writing and feel a kind of moral purity, such as one feels from not smoking. I do not know how to rejoice sufficiently at having conquered that habit.’ But I doubt whether Tolstoy was really as happy as he professed to be at the moment. If he abstained from writing, the reason was, more than likely, that his inspiration had failed him, temporarily, and he was trying to make a virtue of necessity. Had he been permanently cured, I venture to say that thenceforth he would have been the most miserable of men.
For a remarkable feature of this disease, and one of the most difficult to explain, is that, however great a victim’s sufferings in the throes of it, the moment relief comes it is found to be no relief at all. I believe that the wondrous wise man in the nursery rhyme must have been suffering from cacoethes scribendi. ‘He jumped into a bramble bush, and scratched out both his eyes ’ was merely a pictorial way of saying that he found the disease intolerable and took heroic measures to effect a cure. Having momentarily regained his health, he found that condition even less endurable, and immediately elected to become ill again.
I have heard it said that an infallible as well as a permanent cure for the malady is the cooling salve of public indifference and neglect. Cooling this unguent undoubtedly is; but healing? I doubt it. One thinks of innumerable instances which lead to a contrary opinion; of men, some of them rich in worldly possessions, and therefore under no compulsion to write; others wretchedly poor; some of remarkable and varied gifts; some with talents pathetically meagre; but all of them having this in common — that they spent their lives in obscure and solitary literary toil without once hearing a heartening shout of public acclaim.
Consider for a moment a particular, and by no means an exceptional, case — that of Samuel Butler. Although he sometimes wrote music or painted pictures, he was first and last a literary man, and during his life he published fourteen books, all at his own expense. Only one, Erewhon, netted him even a small profit, and his return from that was only sixty-two pounds and some odd shillings. The others were total failures, commercially. Butler was out of pocket 779 pounds, 18 shillings, 11/2 pence for the lot of them. After Erewhon, his most successful book was Life and Habit, which found six hundred and forty purchasers, and the least successful a volume of essays, of which not a single copy was sold. Nevertheless, Butler continued writing to the end of his days. There is an interesting note in his Journal, published after his death, with reference to his books and how they came to be written. ‘I never make them,’ he said; ‘they grow; they come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such. I did not want to write Erewhon. I wanted to go on painting and found it an abominable nuisance being dragged willy-nilly into writing it. So with all my books — the subjects were never of my own choosing; they pressed themselves upon me with more force than I could resist. If I had not liked the subjects I should have kicked, and nothing would have got me to do them at all. . . .’ That final statement I don’t for a moment believe. He might have kicked, but he would have written nevertheless.
Mr. Arthur Machen, the author of those strange and memorable tales, The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams, The Secret Glory, and so forth, furnishes another example of a man who was not deterred from writing by the lack of public encouragement. He resembles Samuel Butler in that his peculiar temperament, his own predilections, as well as the outward circumstances of his life, seem to have made it necessary that he should write the books he did write, and only those. Although he is an artist in a small and lonely field, for pure, passionate, lifelong devotion to the task of cultivating its grudging soil I doubt whether his equal can be found in all the history of letters. Certainly there has never been a more heroic sufferer from the dread scourge — cacoethes scribendi. His volume of reminiscences, Far Off Things, contains a passage that needs to be quoted in full, it puts so well the case for all men of limited talent who are searching for the way to the full heaven of Art which is never to be theirs: —
No; the only course is to go on stumbling and struggling and blundering like a man lost in a dense thicket on a dark night; a thicket, I say, of rebounding boughs that punish with the sting of a whiplash, of thorns that savagely lacerate the flesh, — it is the flesh of the heart, alas! that they tear, — of sharp rocks of agony and black pools of despair. Such is the obscure wood of the literary life; such, at least, it was to me. You struggle to find your way; but again and again you ask yourself whether, for you, there is any way. You think you have hit upon the lucky track at last. And lo! before your feet is the black pit. And such is not alone the adventure of little, ineffectual struggling men. How old was glorious Cervantes, now serene forever amongst the immortals, when he found his way to that village of La Mancha? Fifty, I think, or almost fifty. And be had been striving for years to write plays, and poetry, and short stories of passion and sentiment; and it was only the roar of applause that thundered up from the world when the Knight and the Squire were seen riding over the hill that convinced Cervantes that at last he had discovered his true path; if indeed he were ever convinced of the magnitude and majesty of the achievement of Don Quixote.
And if these things are done with the great, what will be done with the little? If the clear-voiced leaders of the everlasting choir are to suffer so and agonize, what of miserable little Welshmen stammering and stuttering by the Wandle, in the obscure rectory among the hills, in waste places by Shepherd’s Bush, in gloomy Great Russell Street, where the ghosts of dead, disappointed authors go sighing to and fro? For the fate of the little literary man there is no articulate speech that is sufficient; one must fall back upon aoi, or oimoi, or alas, or some such vague lament of unutterable woe.
It is a pity that no one competent to do so has ever made a study, historically and pathologically, of the cacoethes scribendi. If ever such a study is made, Mr. Machen’s two volumes, Things Near and Far and Far Off Things, should be consulted. He has gone into the facts of his own case with painstaking thoroughness, and has reached certain conclusions that need to be tested in the light of wider evidence. For example: like Samuel Butler he kept a careful record of his returns from the sale of his books. He runs through the list of these books, written between 1880 and 1922, and finds that there are eighteen titles. His total receipts for these eighteen volumes, which cost him fortytwo years of toil, amounted to the sum of six hundred and thirty-five pounds; in other words, for nearly half a century of labor, he had been paid at the rate of fifteen pounds and a few shillings per annum. ‘It seems clear,’ he adds, ‘that my literary activities cannot be adequately accounted for on the hypothesis of mere greed and moneygrubbing.’ Then he wonders what the motive, or motives, can he that induce men to devote their lives to literature — why it is that so many writers are willing to endure horrible poverty, disappointment,, mortification, and despair for such slender rewards, for no reward, in fact, that could be adequate. And his conclusion is this: that life, if looked at honestly, without shrinking, is intolerable, and that men will do anything to hide from the serious facts of life, ‘follow any track, however desperate, trivial, perilous, or painful, if only these serious facts can be evaded and forgotten, though it be but for a few hours.’ To write books is one method of escape — of hard escape, to be sure, but offering advantages over other methods to certain types of men.
I question the validity of this conclusion, not in individual instances, but as a general statement of the case. Life is not so horrible as all this comes to. Rabelais, Cervantes, Charles Dickens, the three artists whom Mr. Machen loves and reveres above all others, relished life keenly, and their enormous capacity for loving it as men was the measure of their greatness as artists. The writing of books was no attempt to escape on their part. Their purpose was, rather, to convince others of the foolishness of wanting to escape, by showing them the value of the gift of life, whether considered as a stirring adventure or a fascinating spectacle. I doubt whether any sweeping statement can be made with respect to the causes of cacoethes scribendi. They seem to be as many and varied as its victims.
One of the most eminent of these victims, Joseph Conrad, would have been the last, surely, to have agreed with Mr. Machen that a literary career offers a means of escape from the keener sufferings of life. His recently published letters, many of them written in the midst of his work, reveal a man suffering, as an artist, the torments of the damned. There were, to be sure, contributory causes: ill health, worry about money, and the like, but these by no means account for such anguish of mind and spirit. No one familiar with Conrad’s work could have been unprepared for the revelations of the letters, — such tales as Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Victory, Under Western Eyes, foreshadowed them, — but I doubt whether even the most sympathetic and discerning of his readers had any real conception, beforehand, of the grievous cost to him of the act of creation. But I had forgotten his autobiographical narrative, A Personal Record: there he did let the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, in one of the finest passages, considered merely as prose, that ever came from his pen. In speaking of the labor it cost him to write Nostromo, he said: —
For twenty months, neglecting the common joys of life that fall to the lot of the humblest on this earth, I had, like the prophet of old, ‘wrestled with the Lord’ for my creation, for the headlands of the coast, for the darkness of the Placid Gulf, the light on the snows, the clouds in the sky, and for the breath of life that had to be blown into the shapes of men and women, of Latin and Saxon, of Jew and Gentile. These are, perhaps, strong words, but it is difficult to characterize otherwise the intimacy and the strain of a creative effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and gentle — something for which a material parallel can only be found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape Horn.
It would be an excellent thing if this extract, suitably printed and framed, were to be hung on the walls of classrooms wherever English literature is studied and the art of writing professedly taught. It is reasonable to suppose that students, reading and rereading it day after day, would eventually not only remember the words, but would have a conception, at least, of what they mean — of the difficulties of the tasks confronting the serious artist, of the nature of the gifts necessary to conquer them, and of the peine forte et dure which is his portion in life. If, as a result, some of them were to be deterred from undertaking literary careers, what a blessing that would be, both to themselves and to the public at large.
For there is no doubt that cacoethes scribendi is becoming all too common a malady in these days. All of us journeymen scribblers are out of the discussion, of course. We are merely artisans, like blacksmiths, or carpenters, or bricklayers, and profess to be nothing more. But the countless host of contemporary novelists, dramatists, poets, make no such modest claims to modest merit. They demand to be taken seriously; and every year larger and yet larger numbers of young men and women join the ranks of this army, which threatens, eventually, to include the whole of our adult and adolescent population. Most of them are wholly lacking in gifts for their high calling, save only, occasionally, in that of dogged persistence. The importance of this quality becomes grossly exaggerated in their eyes. They believe it to be half the battle, when in reality it is not one quarter of it. They are misled, too, by the doctrine, so persistently preached at them in an era of cheaply won material success, that any man can achieve what he wills to achieve, if only he wills it hard enough. ‘Lives of great men all remind us . . . ’ That faith is as widely disseminated and, I venture to say, as widely held to-day as it was half a century ago, when Longfellow so unhappily implanted it in every schoolboy’s heart.
I sometimes think that liberty to aspire — supposed to be among the crowning glories of our democratic age — is really the most doubtful of its blessings. Certainly it is responsible for a great deal of needless misery. Consider this army of would-be artists, so many of whom are trying to stretch meagre gifts to the limit of their aspirations; or worse, creating gifts for themselves out of pure imagination. If they were denied the opportunity, how much happier they would be. There is a definition of art, to be found in Mr. Santayana’s Dialogues in Limbo, which, I think, should also be printed and framed for hanging in classrooms. It is this: ‘Art, which is action guided by knowledge, is the principle of benefit, and without art, the freer a man is the more miserable he must become.’ Action guided by knowledge, particularly by self-knowledge, is precisely the kind of action so many of us know nothing about, and that is why we lead such inartistic lives — why, for example, we think we are authentic sufferers from cacoethes scribendi when in reality our complaint no more resembles this glorious malady than ‘Little Birdie in a Tree’ resembles Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’