THERE has been a perennial debate as to the merits of Romanticism and Realism as contrasted schools of literature. Both have flourished at different periods, but Realism is now in the saddle.
The avowed purpose of Realism is its best defense: it professes to look facts in the face, to tell the truth dispassionately, and to find nothing alien to it that is human. It is a little odd to reflect nowadays that in their time Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot were regarded as Realists. Since their day Realism has gone a long way. To-day the school seems rapidly passing into the hands of what may be called the PseudoRealists, who state details, beautiful and ugly, good or bad, with such precision that they cease to convey an impression of reality and defeat what they claim is their purpose.
This Pseudo-Realism has had tremendous impetus since the war. One of the marked social phenomena of the post-war period, too frequently commented upon to need proof, has been the weakening of traditional standards of morality, widespread indifference to former religious sanctions, and a resulting release from many social and religious inhibitions. Along with this has come a frankness of speech about these consequences not hitherto tolerated. Similar phenomena have occurred before, in the literature of the Renaissance after the wars of the Reformation and in the literature of the Restoration after the civil wars in England.
Changing moral standards are still matter for observation. Sound conclusions are as yet scarcely possible. With these moral values in general this paper is not concerned, but rather with the worth of this frankness of speech as it manifests itself in current literature. This changed attitude manifests itself in fiction and drama in three obvious ways: first, with regard to the relations of the sexes and to sexual intercourse as such, with subsidiary reference to birth control; second, with regard to homosexuality; and, third, with regard to expressions formerly held to be blasphemous or intolerably vulgar. The old taboos drove curiosity about sex almost entirely underground, and references to its specific phenomena were almost invariably indirect. They threw over homosexuality a veil of mystery and horror. They paid at least a spurious respect to Christian prejudices. Assuming that this modern frankness is a gain over the old hypocrisy, are there limits to its indulgence, not that official censors should set, but that sound criticism and good taste should determine? The former reticence grew out of religious and social conventions. If it be desirable to return to it in any degree, it should not be under pressure from censorship (a function as dangerous for the State to indulge as for the citizenship to tolerate), but only as religion, as social conventions, as sound criticism can persuade.
The novel and the drama are two popular forms of literature that immediately reflect changing manners and customs, and attention may be confined to them. The illustrations which may be taken to represent the Pseudo-Realism into which much current Realism has degenerated must be chosen arbitrarily, and represent a personal opinion. Under the first group of waiters who discuss sexual relations between men and women pseudorealistically would be included D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Michael Arlen, Aldous Huxley, Eugene O’Neill, Carl Van Vechten, Percy Marks, Roland Firbank, and Ernest Hemingway, as represented by his recent ‘best seller,’ Farewell to Arms. From a few to a dozen plays of this type are usually running simultaneously on Broadway.
The aim of Realism is not merely to tell the truth, but to convey a sense of the truth. In the depiction of the consummation of passion between a man and a woman it aims to represent the frank giving of love or the yielding after resistance and temptation. It is simply a fact that the more detailed is such a depiction, particularly if it includes emphasis on physical gestures, the more the description is robbed of its passionate aspect and serves to awaken sensual impulses or arouse disgust in the reader. The more meticulous the detail, the more certain is this result.
Where in all fiction will be found more intense depictions of passion than in some of the novels of Thomas Hardy? And yet by what one could an unwholesome sensual impulse be stimulated, or from what one should we shrink with disgust? A reviewer in the New Republic recently hailed D. H. Lawrence’s latest (fortunately privately printed) novel as disclosing a new technique in the language of sex. The reviewer must have been very young, for it is precisely the technique employed by the garbage writers of whose work stray specimens fell under the eyes of youths thirty or forty years ago. It is an insult to intelligence to be told that this sex-obsessed novelist has discovered a new technique. He robs passion of its glamour and conveys an utterly false idea of what (it is to be hoped) he meant to depict.1
It would be an easy if somewhat invidious task to enumerate many recent tales hailed by the critics as masterpieces of realism, the which, were they not frank to the point of indecency, would scarcely have attracted comment. Many of these writers give the effect of a crowd of precocious small boys exchanging smutty stories in a haymow. Perhaps they should be spanked, but in any case the publishers who exploit them and the critics who applaud them ought to be profoundly ashamed of themselves. Their popularity tends to cheapen fiction and the drama, and will end in degrading it to the level of the gutter. In saying this a lofty moral tone is neither assumed nor implied. It is not to assert that adultery, promiscuity, or vice should find no place in fiction or the drama; but only to assert that if such themes are chosen they should be dealt with by a selective Realism that gives a true picture and successfully avoids pandering to the lower instincts of the reader.
Under the second group, few novels or plays published in England or America that discuss homosexual relations are objectionable, despite the silly advertisement given by the Boston censors to the works of Miss Radclyffe Hall. But to-day allusions to the subject are frequent, whereas formerly they were extremely rare. George Moore deals with the subject in one privately printed short story. D. H. Lawrence has suggestive hints, rather more objectionable than frank statements, in one of his novels. But as yet, owing doubtless to the widespread prejudice and misunderstanding of the subject, there has been little attempt to discuss it in fiction or the drama. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and some of Walt Whitman’s poems remain the classic expressions of Greek love in English. But translations of the novels of André Gide, who treats the subject romantically and defensively, have been published; so also have translations in expensive editions of the works of Proust, Delteil, and Rachilde, who, while denouncing homosexuality as a vice, yet depict it in some of its nastiest aspects. These facts are not without significance, though it is likely that popular prejudice wall restrain a pseudo-realistic or even a genuine realistic treatment of this unhappy phenomenon for some time to come.
With regard to the third group of Pseudo-Realists, those who indulge in offensive profanity and intolerable vulgarity, it is to be said that for all their offensiveness they are far from depicting reality. To take a conspicuous instance, The Front Page was a gorgeous play, despite its profanity and vulgarity. But can anyone imagine that even Ben Hecht would dare to print the actual language used by such a rowdy crowd of reporters, crooks, and harlots as he brought together in that play? Most of us have heard at one time or another bits of conversation indulged in by rowdies. It makes the profanity and vulgarity of The Front Page seem colorless in contrast. Since the playwright dared not be absolutely phonographic in this instance, why not be content with a genuinely realistic treatment that would suggest the atmosphere, indicate the nature of the dialogue, without going out of his way to insult the religious sensibilities of many possible playgoers and the good taste of as many more?
Dickens gave as realistic pictures of vice as our modern young men. What Price Glory? set the pace, and since then the stage and many novels have reeked with profanity, which, bad though it may be, yet wholly fails to be a phonographic record of actual conversation. Art must ever be selective, and simply to shock is not to achieve an artistic effect. Sometimes, one suspects, the writer is more concerned to shock than to be artistic. And yet, what now can shock us?
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.
Since we do welcome the frankness of the present time as on the whole something better than the hypocritical reticence and culpable ignorance of a generation ago, perhaps we may hope that Pseudo-Realism is a temporary phenomenon, a by-product of what in the long run will prove a definite social gain. But the way to bring it about that Pseudo-Realism shal be only a temporary phenomenon certainly does not lie in any sort of censorship. All censorships that have been tried have proved stupid, prejudiced, unjust, and in the end futile. They violate personal liberties that are perhaps worth maintaining at the cost of bad manners, at the cost even of a little more promiscuous immorality. Nor does the remedy lie with the Church, except indirectly. The Roman Church has an Index of Prohibited Books, and it is not likely that one Roman Catholic in a thousand knows what books are on the Index. The Protestant habit, often indulged, of denouncing individual books from the pulpit but gives them a gratuitous advertisement. The Church can do no more than attempt to train its adherents in the principles of Christian morality, which should lead them to avoid immoral books or to find them distasteful if read.
But there are other agencies in the community besides the State and the Church. It is a disheartening spectacle to see great publishing houses, some with splendid traditions of long service to culture, pandering to the worst tastes of the day. It is disheartening to observe the critics, those self-appointed guides to the best in literature and art, pointing out the works of these unrestrained, undisciplined Pseudo-Realists as the fine flower of youthful genius. We can at least hope that reputable publishers will print only reputable books. We can at least expect that critics will not mislead the public into imagining that specimens of sheer pornography are works of art.
This protest is not so much against the fact that many of these novels and plays are immoral, as that they are untrue to reality. For, by fastening upon the crude details of the themes they depict, instead of presenting a picture of reality they give us a meretricious appearance of reality, so that their effect is not only morally but artistically bad.
- Since this article was put into type Mr, Lawrence has died, but his work REMAINS.&EMDASH;EDITOR↩