The Modern Temper


by Joseph Wood Kruteh. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 8vo, xvi +249 pp. $2.50.
‘WE want the creative faculty,’ said Shelley in a famous essay, ‘to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to art that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception: we have eaten more than we can digest.’ If these words of his were faithful to the Western state of mind a hundred years ago, how much more ominously faithful they seem to our state of mind to-day! Just how far the calculations of the thoughtful Occidental have outran ‘conception.’ just how much more he has eaten than he can digest, will perhaps he evident only to readers of Mr. kruteh s brave and bitter book. At all events, il is a book which all temperamental optimists, all naive idealists, all thoughtless ’forwardlookers,’should be forced to read and consider. The mood of disillusion lias been, during the last decade, articulate enough among us; Imt it has very rarely indeed been explained and defended so temperately, so judiciously, or so unaffectedly, as in The Modern Temper.
Readers of the Atlantic are already acquainted with Mr Krutch ’s exposition of what he very properly lakes to he the characteristic outlook of reflective people in our time. They will remember his analysis of the effect which increasing scientific knowledge has had in shrinking the horizons of human aspiration ami hope; his exposition of the ‘paradox of humanism’ — that our specifically human capacities for disinterested thought and personal development are the capacities least cherished by Nature herself; his description of the collapse of such values as romantic love and that belief in man’s nobility which makes tragedy possible; and bis astute rejoinder to the attempt which certain modem metaphysicians have made to provide a new basis for affirmation in a kind of revived scholasticism. Such readers will surely remember also how courageously Mr. Kruteh pursues his argument to its logical and unhappy conclusion, and with what freerImn from rhetoric and self-pity he states that conclusion when he has arrived at it.
Yet, salutary as his confession of faithlessness certainly is, if will probably not be accepted as the last, word on the subject by many people who think of themselves as also, in some sense, moderns. The question can hardly be disposed of in a paragraph, but to one reader it appears that Mr. Krutch must be challenged on the grounds of his two basic assumptions — assumptions which involve, if the phrases may be used without invifliousness, the-melodramatic and the sentimental fallacies. By this I mean, first, the assumption that there is some irreparable disharmony between the purposes of Nature and the aspirations of man: and, second, that a value can be really deflated when its natural basis is fully described. As to the former, it may equally well be maintained that mans aspirations are themselves ‘given by Nature, and are probably in some real if obscure harmony with her purposes. As to the. second, it is no doubt largely a matter of temperament: but at least there are many men not merely thick-skinned, who can rejoice in love as an experience even when they understand its natural origins, and can believe seriously in the nobility of man even when they see him in his biological setting. In both cases, it is a question how strong and how well disciplined is the desire to affirm; and many of us are not prepared to admit that we must he forever wanting in ‘the creative faculty imagine that which we know.’