'These Sad Young Men'

I

‘WE have come, willy-nilly, to see the soul of man as commonplace and its emotions as mean. . . . The death of Tragedy is, like the death of Love, one of those emotional fatalities as the result of which the human as distinguished from the natural world grows more and more a desert.’

So Mr. Joseph Wood Krutch in a recent number of the Atlantic. He is by no means a lonely voice crying in the wilderness of this desert world. Quite a number of young people are with him. A perusal of their writings almost persuades one that, however it may be with Tragedy and Love, laughter is in imminent peril. Mr. Aldous Huxley, for instance: —

I’m so tired of all the rubbish about the higher life and moral and intellectual progress and living for ideals and all the rest of it. It all leads to death. Christians and moralists and cultured aesthetes and bright young scientists — all the poor little human frogs, just going pop, ceasing to be anything but the fragments of a little frog, — decaying fragments at that. The whole thing’s a huge stupidity, a huge disgusting lie.

Life could have been so beautiful. . . . Yes, and it was beautiful once. Now it is just an insanity; it’s just death violently galvanized, twitching about and making a hellish hullaballoo to persuade itself that it is n’t really death. . . . Think of New York.

To multiply quotations would be to incur the danger of monotony — a danger, it may be noted, which these young writers themselves do not shrink from. Their denunciations — I beg their pardon. They would not do anything so unsophisticated as to denounce; they would be faintly, ironically, amused at being supposed to care enough about, anything to denounce it. Let me say, then, that their gestures of futility are all singularly alike. They are in complete agreement that most things worth while died the day before yesterday and that by the day after to-morrow none will be left. Love, for instance, — the love of man and woman, — is no more, Mr. Krutch tells us. Once it was potent; in Victorian times even especially so. In the eighteen-nineties few escaped its illusion. But no more. We see it clearly now as mere bathos or an obscene joke. ‘In the general wreck, the wreck of love is conspicuous.’ Portentous times, these of ours, which in a decade or two completely finished ofi what has been a mainspring of human action ever since men first started writing books. ‘Vertiginous rapidity, comments Mr. Krutch, and on this point he will command a universal agreement. Anything, it would appear, in Mr. Krutch’s world, may happen overnight.

A by-product of the works of these despondent young people, which may well prove in the end their most important contribution, is to give a new vantage point to those who uphold the value of a classical education. For the classical student learns inevitably to see human nature and human life, in the broad outline, as a fairly invariable constant. It is impossible for one rooted and grounded in the classics to feel the uniqueness of the present. How often when the dangerous youth of to-day are being arraigned by despairing elders I have thought of Aristophanes or Xenophon or Isocrates yearning for ‘the good old kind of education,’ the days, now past forever, alas! when ‘children were seen, not heard,’ when ‘at meals they were not allowed to grab at the dainties and giggle and cross their feet,’ when ‘young people were courteous to their elders and honored their parents,’ when boys ‘ were an impersonation of modesty — instead of running after balletgirls.’ Now, all lament, the children are tyrants in their families and hardly better in their schools. Alcibiades boxed the ears of his literature teacher! What is the world coming to!

That question is echoed by generation after generation. This terrible new world that our fathers knew not of—what will become of it?

‘Hor a novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus!’

cried Bernard of Cluny in the twelfth century — a strange new day, a time the very worst that there could be. And, as every schoolboy knows, Cicero is credibly reported to have exclaimed, ‘O temporal O mores !’ Never an age that is not appalled at its own depravity.

II

The point is one I should like to urge on all these sad young men. The thing that hath been is that which shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun. Let the young writers take heart. From any point of view of the past it would appear something more than a possibility that the end of all good things is not yet in sight. Indeed, the classical student is so far from the vision of mankind slipping swiftly down a steep decline that he is apt to find his discouragement in what appears to him the patent fact that through all the millenniums and the cataclysms of history the human heart remains so astoundingly the same. Within that inner world a thousand years are but as yesterday when it is past; the joys and griefs, the hopes and fears, of Aristophanes’ Athenians are ours to-day.

Mr. Huxley, Mr. Krutch, and the rest, ultramoderns as they conceive themselves to be, are yet not a new product. They have been known before. Nor are they the veritable moderns. It is true that that which we call the modern mind is also not the product of to-day. As I have said elsewhere, its exponents exist in every age and every generation. When Professor Murray made Euripides popular in the first years of this century, people read him with amazement that he was so modern. To-day those to whom the ways of 1900 are hopelessly dated still find themselves astonishingly at home in him. In 400 B.C. they felt in the same way, and when old age shall this generation waste, Euripides will remain, still speaking to those who are in the vanguard of their time. He is the outstanding exponent of the modern mind. The young writers under consideration have nothing in common with him. Those who possess the modern mind are the people who never feel pain commonplace or suffering trivial. They are peculiarly sensitized to ‘the giant agony of the world.’ What they see as needless misery around them and what they envisage as needless misery to come are intolerable to them. Mr. H. G. Wells cannot sleep at night for thinking of what will happen to England when the coal age is over; he feels a very passion of despairing grief.

To such men it is past bearing to wait for the slow and clumsy adjustments in the passing of years and centuries of time; to look on helplessly while mankind takes what is so clearly the wrong turning or fails to take what is so manifestly the right. The world to them is made up of individuals, each with a terrible power to suffer, and the poignant pity of their own hearts precludes them from any philosophy in the face of this awful sum of pain, and any capacity to detach themselves from it. ‘We grope for the wall like the blind . . . we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. . . . We look for judgment, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us. . . . And justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. Yea, truth faileth. . . . We are all as an unclean thing . . . and we all do fade as a leaf.’ Seven hundred years before Christ those words were written by the greatest modern mind of Judæa. Such men must bear the burden of the valley of vision, but that vision and that protest are not thrown away. ‘The life without criticism,’ Plato says, ‘is not worthy to be lived.’ The possessors of the modern mind are the perpetual critics, and, whatever else they fail to shatter, complacent self-content shrivels before them.

Side by side with this profoundly serious spirit there exists another which has superficial points of resemblance but is in reality completely different — the spirit that animates our despairing young writers. The modern spirit has its roots in pain; it suffers for mankind. Quite the reverse is true of the other. It is Byronic; its despair is not the result of suffering, but the source of gratification. I venture the assertion that no one who is not young and fortunate is capable of it. A pleasing self-consciousness is a foremost feature. Alone, high above the thoughtless herd, stands disillusioned youth, completely aware of its sad eminence. So Lara when our grandfathers were young: —

A vital scorn of all,
As if the worst had fall’n which could befall.

So Manfred and Childe Harold: —

If it be life to wear within myself
This barrenness of spirit and to be
My own soul’s sepulchre —
We are alike unfit
To sink or soar. . . . We breathe
The breath of degradation.

So too Mr. Krutch: —

Distrusting its thought, despising its passions, realizing its impotent unimportance in the universe, it [our society to-day] can tell itself no stories except those which make it still more acutely aware of its trivial miseries.

The idiom changes and the outward semblance. Marble brows and clustering curls of raven hue and gloomy grace and all that chilling mystery of mien are gone. Undoubtedly we have lost in picturesqueness. We have exchanged the Hellespont for the subway. But the spirit is unchanged and we need not weep for the Hellespont. Beyond all question some future generation will be lamenting the lost beauty of the alternations of light and gloom, the jeweled ruby and emerald lights against the blackness, the sense of rushing through the unseen, once enjoyed in the ancient subway. The setting passes, but that is all.

Mr. Aldous Huxley’s Byronism is not quite of this order. In the nineties Wilde was the most distinguished exponent of the Byronic spirit, and Mr. Huxley inclines that way rather than to the simpler, older form. The paradox enchants him just as it did Wilde. ‘One way of knowing God,’ Mr. Huxley’s foremost character in Point Counter Point concludes, ‘is to deny him.’ That is Wilde to the echo. Paradox after paradox used to flow from him: Not to pray was more devotional than to pray; ignorance of oneself to be preferred to knowledge; the artist perfect in proportion as he produced nothing, and so on and so on. Mr. Huxley can match them all, the only difference being that Wilde merely talked, and Mr. Huxley, appropriately to the age he lives in, uses a loud speaker: ‘Telling men to obey Jesus literally is telling them to behave like idiots and finally like devils’; ‘Your little stink-pot of a St. Francis . . . only succeeding in killing whatever sense or decency there was in him — the disgusting little pervert’; ‘Deaf and purblind, the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual truth’; ‘The real charm of the intellectual life is its easiness. . . . The intellectual life is child’s play, which is why intellectuals tend to become children, and then imbeciles, and finally homicidal lunatics and wild beasts.’ Again quotation becomes monotonous. The receipt is too apparent: take anything men agree is true and state the exact opposite. That, one would suppose, would be revealed to Mr. Huxley as even easier than the intellectual life. The underlying motive is, in his case just as in Wilde’s, to assert the sense of superiority which is essential to Byronism. To startle and not be startled — all the naive egotism of youth is in that desire.

III

But there are many examples of the spirit Byron has forever stamped. Mr. Ernest Hemingway harks back to yet another model. It seems a far cry from La Dame aux Camelias to The Sun Also Rises, but, for all the outward difference, Mr. Hemingway and Dumas fils are brothers under the skin. When the lady with the camellias renounces forever the love of her life, in that moment of excruciating agony her active consciousness leaves her. What she does she knows not, but her unconscious self is guided by the exalted determination of her sacrifice, and in the morning she wakes up in the bed of the marquis — or was it the duke? Another man, at all events. This is the great moment that reveals the sheer nobility of her heroic renunciation. In Mr. Hemingway’s novel the sex is changed, but that is all: the hero in his great moment is the reincarnation of the fair, frail lady. In a Spanish cabaret he sits with the girl of his adoration. Enters a magnificent young toreador to whom the lady succumbs instantly. She tells the hero that she must have him and that he, who loves her so madly, must get him for her. No less than Dumas’s heroine does he show the heights that true love can rise to. He goes up to the superb young Spaniard; he tells him his errand in clear, unfaltering accents; back to her side he brings him; he feels the repercussion of two passions meeting; and past the sneering crowd, who realize the full significance of his act, he walks out — alone — into the blackness of the night. The idiom, of course, shows marked variations from type. La dame and her Armand converse in terms of high-flown rhetoric, while Mr. Hemingway’s hero and heroine bid each other go to hell with unvarying persistency, but the informing spirit changes not at all. It is hardly necessary to point out that the heroine of Mr. Michael Arlen’s best-known novel is also of this order. The end of the lady with the green hat will occur to everyone as a very slight variation on Dumas’s theme.

Dumas fils we know by now to be an arrant sentimentalist. It is so easy to recognize sentimentality in the dress of another age: a haughty young figure posed against Greek columns; a mantle flung over one shoulder; a proudly curling lip; an air of weary disdain. We smile appreciatively. But to see it as clearly in the dress of our own day, in the very most modish and up-todate costume — that is another matter. These hard-headed, ultramodern young people, who seemed so far removed from any least touch of sentimentality? They are not; their world-weary sophistication differs in no essential from Byron’s or from his prototypes’ through the ages. Each generation of the young looks with amused or lofty superiority at its fond and foolish elders, and proclaims itself the finally disillusioned, and each is as sentimental as it is the prerogative of youth forever to be.

Sentimentality is a most curious thing. Nothing else assumes so many cunning disguises; nothing is harder to define. To assert, however, that it is based on unreality is to venture on no debatable ground; so much is of common consent. By it we escape from the tyranny of fact. Only a very few, the true âmes d’élite, are completely free from it by nature; the rest of us must trust to the faulty and fickle education of circumstance. It used to be considered the peculiar prerogative of women, but the reason was only that they were sheltered in large measure from the world of fact. Women were not sentimental about their own facts; they were not often enthusiastic about dishwashing and childbearing. When they talked as if they were it was because they found it wise policy to echo the unbounded enthusiasm men have always had for these pursuits. It was when the women ventured beyond their own experience that they became sentimental. Experience is the only corrective; to go beyond what one has oneself felt is to become infallibly and inevitably sentimental. Sincerity and sentimentality are incompatible; sentimentality is unconscious insincerity. And the one and only basis of sincerity is that most difficult page in the book of human knowledge, self-knowledge, the power to distinguish between what one has experienced and what one has not.

Mr. Aldous Huxley and his kind are sentimental because they write of what they have not felt. They do not, certainly as yet, belong to the rank of those who can completely transcend the limitations of their own experience, and they have turned aside from the difficult task of seeking within themselves what they know for themselves is the truth indeed. When Shakespeare says in words the most terrible ever spoken of human life that

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing,

we bear it; we catch a glimpse of a depth of pain that awes us. Before that mystery of suffering, protest is silenced. When Mr. Huxley or Mr. Krutch tells us that humanity is contemptible and life a trivial misery that has no meaning, we can afford to smile. Whoever finds pain trivial, whoever lightly despises human life, is still living on the surface. He has not yet had ‘the great initiation,’ which alone entitles him to touch upon great themes.

None can usurp this height . . .
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.

Like the nineteenth-century women who talked in tones of shocked purity about the horrid world of politics, these young men have gone beyond the field of their experience. Clever young men, brilliant young men — the pity, we feel, that they who undoubtedly know much that we ordinary mortals are cut off from do not confine themselves to cultivating their own garden and wait awhile before trying to compass the boundless horizon. The world is a very big and a very surprising place; human beings are forever acting in incalculable ways. To comprehend the soul, Plato tells us, we have to understand the whole of nature — no light matter. Our young writers would do well to consider Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Think of things long past and long to come, acquaint thyself with the Choragium of the Stars, and consider the vast expansion beyond them. Have a glimpse of incomprehensibles.’ The best receipt for shrinking the world to the dimensions of one’s own garden is to measure it by oneself.

Mr. Aldous Huxley is a witty raconteur, with a keen eye for the ironies of life. We could enjoy him as a kind of twentieth-century Jane Austen if he would only leave the universe alone and learn to laugh at himself. What should we not have lost if Miss Austen had been unable to laugh, if she had persisted in holding up Mr. Collins to damn the Christian Church, and Mr. Wickham to damn all the rest. Schnitzler’s Anatol and Max can match any of Mr. Hemingway’s bad young men, but Schnitzler takes them for what they are, not as an argument of despair for mankind. In that book of balance and proportion, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Miss Anita Loos does not bring an indictment against the universe in the person of Lorelei. She knows how to laugh, and that knowledge is the very best preservative there is against losing the true perspective. Let the young men beware. Without a sense of humor one must keep hands off the universe unless one is prepared to be oneself an unconscious addition to the sum of the ridiculous.

IV

Modern life — that is what this disillusioned generation feels to be intolerable. The Age of Man’s Domination by Machines. From the terror of it Mr. Huxley looks back longingly to the bronze age. Unfortunately there are so few records of what happened then, but one cannot but conceive some of the features of it as alarming, and involuntarily one is set to wondering what Mr. Huxley would do confronted with a sabre-toothed tiger, when he cannot face a victrola and can hardly endure a motor car. Mr. Krutch is less drastic in his historic preferences. The age of Pericles for him, or of Elizabeth, when gorgeous Tragedy was still alive. But if Mr. Krutch would ponder certain parts of Shakespeare and reread all of Aristophanes he might be convinced that other things too were then alive even less desirable than modern Gnosticism.

That ‘paralysis of the will by the intellect’ which Mr. Krutch so deplores, as Stendhal did a hundred years before him, has always been the peculiar distinction of the little — very little — band of those who in each age are completely conscious of being the intelligentsia. No generalization based upon them about life in the past or life now can be valid. One fact would seem beyond dispute: modern life does not furnish a soft berth for a weak will. Undoubtedly man in the past had to bear discomforts far beyond any known to-day, but the patient endurance of misery has never ranked high among those qualities that make us men. Life to-day demands not less effort than life once did, but more. A peasant ploughing his furrow becomes a workman on the girders of a skyscraper catching red-hot rivets flung at him through space. The engineer on a continental express must have qualities Mr, Weller aloft on his stagecoach was never called upon to exercise. To be sure, Mr. Krutch’s point of view is not unique; undoubtedly when the first man hoisted a bit of bark to sail his boat across the river without aid from him, those watching on the bank despaired for the future of mankind now that manly vigor was no more to be exercised. But as yet electricity and steam heat and telephones have not played a determining part in shaping human character. Life in a great modern city still makes its own urgent demands for hard living. Here is not the place, nor is mine the power, to sing the Age of Industrialism. That will be done when another era has dawned, by some laudator temporis acti. The point I would press is that — strange mystery of human nature — we refuse ever to take our ease. If it were not so, if with each time-saving and space-shortening device the effort put into life lessened, we should be well in sight by now of the end of the downward path, Capuans warranted to make any Hannibal effeminate. But as soon as one world is conquered we must have another instantly to essay. When we are not obliged to live dangerously we choose to do so. Our attention not being engaged by Indians trying to tomahawk us, we turn it of our own free will to making airplanes. No less than in the days of old are we driven on by the adamantine goddess, stern Necessity. Only her form has changed.

The enfeeblement of the spirit of man, which has already brought us to a point where we cannot find either love or nobility any more in the world — this is Mr. Krutch’s central thesis. The spirit of man, which nothing in the past was ever able to subdue, is fallen and will never rise again. I would that our young men could be persuaded to add to their litany one more petition: From swift and shallow generalization, good Lord, deliver us. Eyes as keen as Mr. Krutch’s undoubtedly are, — if he would but take time to commune with his own heart, and be still, — are not needed to discern to-day the shining spirit of the gay adventurer rejoicing to risk all. That which moved Sir Richard Grenville sailing the little Revenge against the Spanish Armada is one with Lindbergh in the spaces over the sea. The Crusaders aflame for the Holy City become the doctors who die to discover the cause of a disease. Heroism in its two distinctive forms so clearly here beside us. And, even more to give us courage for what is to come, an ever-rising tide of human kindness, a deepening conviction that we are, in most practical fact, our brother’s keeper, due not to any essential difference in the spirit, but to the fact that the focus has shifted. It has moved away from the single man, king, hero, saint, raised on high for all to see, to the indistinguishable units that make up the hurrying crowds, to the anonymous individual. No longer the general, but the regiment; not the captain any more than the crew; not this or that great single figure, but the nameless heroes, the engineers, the bridge builders, the workers in steel and steam and electricity and dynamos and turbines and all the things that build and drive this mighty age. We are asserting in our own terms what every age in its own way has voiced, the profoundest conviction of humanity — the worth of human life. In truth, if we do not allow ourselves to grow impatient with the vagaries of adolescent thought which are, after all, so natural, we can perceive in the very restlessness and bewildered unhappiness of many of our young people a sign of that strangest of all the strange things that move within us, ‘the mysterious preference for the best.’ ‘He who finds it miserable not to be a king, must be a king dethroned’ — the consciousness of our finiteness, of our insignificance, of our misery, is the seal of our greatness.