The Deadly Arts


I AM writing a book.1 If it is ever written, and — if written — it finds a publisher, and — if published—anyone reads it, it will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography. We are living in an age of biography. We can no longer say with Carlyle that a well-written life is as rare as a wellspent one. Our bookstalls are filled with stories of the great and near-great of all ages, and each month’s publishers’ lists announce a new crop. The biographical form of writing has largely displaced the novel, it has poached upon the territory that was once spoken of as criticism, it has gone into successful competition with the detective story and the erotic memoir, and it has even entered the realm of the psychopathic clinic. One wonders what has released this deluge.

There are many possible answers. It is not unlikely that, together with other phases of modern life, literature has gone ‘scientific.’ As in science, a few men of originality work out the formulas for discovery in a chosen subject, and a mass of followers apply this formula to analogous problems and achieve profitable results. In an age of meagre literary originality, it is a natural impulse for workers to endeavor to explain the genius of great masters. And for every novelist, poet, or inventor of any kind we have a dozen interpreters, commentators, and critics. Once biography was a serious business and the task of the scholar. When Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives,his mind — as Mr. Clough rightly remarks— was running on the Aristotelian ethics and the Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated men of his time. He dealt less with action, more with motives and the reaction of ability and character upon the circumstances of the great civilizations of Greece and of Rome. Scholarly biographies of later ages followed similar methods, even in such intensely personal records as Boswell’s Johnson,or the Conversations by which so dull an ass as Eckermann managed to write himself into permanent fame. The minor details of intimate life were, in the past, regarded as having consequence only as they had bearing on the states of mind that led to high achievement. It was recognized that ‘ les petitesses de la vie privée peuvent s’allier avec I’héroïsme de la vie publique. ’ But they were utilized only when they were significant or amusing. All this, however, has changed. The new school sees the key to personality in the petitesses. Biography has become neurosisconscious. Freud is a great man. But it is dangerous when a great man is too easily half-understood. The Freudian high explosives have been worked into firecrackers for the simple to burn their fingers. It has become easy to make a noise and a bad smell with materials compounded by the great discoverer for the blasting of tunnels. Biography is obviously the best playground for the dilettante of psychoanalysis. The older biographers lacked this knot hole into the subconscious. They judged their heroes only by the conscious. The subconscious dethrones the conscious. Great men are being reappraised by their endocrine balances rather than by their performances. Poor Shelley! Poor Byron! Poor Wagner! Poor Chopin! Poor Heine! Poor Mark Twain! Poor Henry James! Poor Melville! Poor Dostoevski! Poor Tolstoy! And even poor Jesus! There are still a lot left — the surface is hardly scratched. But, even before the great ones give out, the ‘ damaged ’ ones make good reading: P. T. Barnum, Mrs. Eddy, Brigham Young — even unto Al Capone and Pancho Villa.

In the present biography, we are forced by the nature of our subject to revert to the older methods. We will profit by no assistance from psychoanalysis. There will be no prenatal influences; no Œdipus or mother complexes; no early love affairs or later infidelities; no perversions, urges, or maladjustments; no inhibitions by respectability, and no frustration by suppressed desires. We shall have no gossip to help us; no personal letters which there was no time to burn. We cannot count upon the réclame of a libel suit barely averted, or of scandals deftly hinted at. We have not even the comfort of preceding biographers and essayists whom we can copy, paraphrase, or refute. Indeed, we are quite stripped of the sauces, spices, and dressings by which biographers can usually make poets and scientists into quite ordinary and often objectionable people; by which they can divert attention from the work of a man to his petty or perhaps vicious habits; by which they can create a hero out of a successful commercial highbinder; by which they can smother public guilt by domestic virtue, or direct interest from the best and lasting accomplishments of their subject to the utterly unimportant private matters of which he was ashamed.

The habitué of biographies will ask himself how, without these indispensable accessories of the biographical tradesman, we can dare to enter this field. The answer is a simple one: the subject of our biography is a disease.

We shall try to write it in as untechnical a manner as is consistent with accuracy. It will of necessity be incomplete, for the life of our subject has been a long and turbulent one from which we can select only the high spots. Much of its daily domestic history has been as commonplace and repetitive as that of any human being, warrior, poet, or shopkeeper. Above all, our narrative is not ‘ popular science.’ We have before us the dreadful examples of Beebe, Julian Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane, de Kruif, Eddington, Jeans, and Millikan. If our story is, in places, dramatic, it will be the fault of the story — not our own. Nobody will be educated by it. We have chosen to write the biography of our disease because we love it platonically — as Amy Lowell loved Keats — and have sought its acquaintance wherever we could find it. And in this growing intimacy we have become increasingly impressed with the influence that this and other infectious diseases, which span — in their protoplasmic continuities — the entire history of mankind, have had upon the fates of men.

In approaching our subject, however, we permit ourselves a number of digressions into fields into which our undertaking inevitably forces us.


Infectious disease is one of the great tragedies of living things — the struggle for existence between different forms of life. Man sees it from his own prejudiced point of view; but clams, oysters, insects, fish, flowers, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, fruit, shrubs, trees, have their own varieties of smallpox, measles, cancer, or tuberculosis. Incessantly the pitiless war goes on, without quarter or armistice — a nationalism of species against species. Usually, however, among the so-called ‘ lower ’ forms of life, there is a solidarity of class relationship which prevents them from preying upon their own kind by that excess of ferocity which appears to prevail only among human beings, rats, and some of the more savage varieties of fish. There are, it must be admitted, isolated instances in the animal kingdom of a degree of ferocity within the same species not yet attained by man. Husband eating is an accepted custom with the spiders, and among the Alacran or scorpions it is quite de rigueur for the mother to devour the father and then, in her turn, to be eaten by her ‘kiddies.’ When male members of the larger cat families — that is, mountain lions — waylay and eat their own children, this is not truly an evidence of ferocity. It is an indirect crime passionnel, the result of an impatient tenderness for the lioness who has become too exclusively the mother. The motive is love, and, as La Rochefoucauld has said, ‘Si on juge l’amour par la plupart de ses effets, il ressemble plus àa la haine qu’à l’amitié.‘

Nature seems to have intended that her creatures feed upon one another. At any rate, she has so designed her cycles that the only forms of life that are parasitic directly upon Mother Earth herself are a proportion of the vegetable kingdom that dig their roots into the sod for its nitrogenous juices and spread their broad chlorophyllic leaves to the sun and air. But these — unless too unpalatable or poisonous — are devoured by the beasts and by man; and the latter, in their turn, by other beasts and by bacteria. In the Garden of Eden perhaps things may have been so ordered that this mutual devouring was postponed until death, by the natural course of old age, had returned each creature’s store of nutriment to the general stock. Chemically, this might have been possible, and life maintained. But in the imperfect development of cohabitation on a crowded planet the habit of eating one another — dead and alive — has become a general custom, instinctively and dispassionately indulged in. There is probably as little conscious cruelty in the lion that devours a missionary as there is in the kind-hearted old gentleman who dines upon a chicken pie, or in the staphylococcus that is raising a boil on the old gentleman’s neck. Broadly speaking, the lion is parasitic on the missionary, as the old gentleman is on the chicken pie, and the staphylococcus on the old gentleman. We will not enlarge upon this, because it would lead us into that excess of technicality which we wish to avoid.

The important point is that infectious disease is merely a disagreeable instance of a widely prevalent tendency of all living creatures to save themselves the bother of building, by their own efforts, the things they require. Whenever they find it possible to take advantage of the constructive labors of others, this is the direction of the least resistance. The plant does the work with its roots and its green leaves. The cow eats the plant. Man eats both of them; and bacteria (or investment bankers) eat the man. Complete elucidation would require elaborate technical discussions, but the principle is clear. Life on earth is an endless chain of parasitism which would soon lead to the complete annihilation of all living beings unless the incorruptible workers of the vegetable kingdom constantly renewed the supply of suitable nitrogen and carbon compounds which other living things can filch. It is a topic that might lend itself to endless trite moralizing. In the last analysis, man may be defined as a parasite on a vegetable.

That form of parasitism which we call infection is as old as animal and vegetable life. And our chief purpose in writing the biography of one of these diseases is to impress the fact that we are dealing with a phase of man’s history on earth which has received too little attention from poets, artists, and historians. Swords and lances, arrows, machine guns, and even high explosives have had far less power over the fates of the nations than the typhus louse, the plague flea, and the yellow-fever mosquito. Civilizations have retreated from the plasmodium of malaria, and armies have crumbled into rabbles under the onslaught of cholera spirilla, or of dysentery and of typhoid bacilli. Huge areas have been devastated by the trypanosome that travels on the wings of the tsetse fly, and generations have been harassed by the syphilis of a courtier. War and conquest and that herd existence which is an accompaniment of what we call civilization have merely set the stage for these more powerful agents of human tragedy.


Having written the preceding paragraphs, we read them over and came to the conclusion that there was little in them that mattered very much. We were, perhaps, a little severe in discussing modern biographers. One is lured into discussions of this kind by one’s irritations. One can disagree with many of the opinions expressed by Goethe in Eckermann, or by Renan, or Sainte-Beuve, or by Babbitt, or by Whitehead, — when one understands what he is talking about, — and come away with the satisfaction of having been stimulated to opposed views by the importance of those one disagreed with. But one is merely irritated by the complacency with which the sciences and the arts are dealt with e superiore loco by the younger school of American biographical critics, who sit between intelligence and beauty, — like Voltaire between Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier, — ‘without possessing either.’ One wishes to exclaim, with a similarly irritated Frenchman: ‘Save us, dear Lord, from the connaisseurs qui n’ont pas de connaissance and from the amateurs qui n’ont pas d’amour!

A part of our first paragraphs, therefore, is nothing more than a growl. Yet it still serves to introduce our subject; and we are further inclined to retain it for the following reasons. We are engaged in an occupation which philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, physical chemists, biochemists, and even physiologists (who may in many cases have been less valuable to science than one of Pawlow’s dogs) do not acknowledge as a science, and which poets, novelists, critics, biographers, dramatists, painters, sculptors, and even journalists categorically exclude from the arts. We are in a position, therefore, to look both ways with the clarity begotten of humility. But, in discussing our ideas with representatives of the various callings named above, we encountered a common misconception, — perhaps the only opinion on which there was agreement, — to the effect that men were impelled to enter the career of investigating infectious diseases from a noble desire to serve mankind, to save life, and to relieve suffering.

A friend of ours is a professional writer. By this, we mean a person who makes his living by writing in the same way that a bricklayer makes his by laying bricks, or a plumber supports himself by sweating joints. Writing, of course, like speech, is a method of expressing ideas or of telling tales. It is also a means of conveying to others emotions, conceptions, or original comprehensions which might instruct, amuse, delight, or elevate. This kind of writing used to be called art. And once — when only the intelligent could read — writing also needed to be intelligent and artistic.

In our day, however, all kinds of people can read: college professors and scrubwomen, doctors and lawyers, bartenders, ministers of the gospel, and trained nurses. They all have the same ideal of the happy ending of a dull day — a comfortable couch, a bed lamp, and something to read. And there must, in consequence, be writers to supply this need — literature for the intelligent as for the moron — a book for every brain, like a motor car for every purse.

The particular writer of whom we speak has been unusually successful in alternately supplying both markets — now satisfying the reasonably intelligent, and again luring a fat check with stories about the poor boy and the boss’s daughter. In the latter mood, he has scented the rich possibilities of exploiting the sensationalisms of science — a source of revenue so successfully tapped by a number of his literary contemporaries. But never having had any close association with workers in the field of infectious diseases, he shared this misconception of the noble motives which impelled these queer people. And not quite understanding how anyone could be impelled by noble motives, he asked us: ‘How do bacteriologists get that way?’ We answered his question more or less in the following manner.

A great deal of sentimental bosh has been written about this totally erroneous assumption. When a bacteriologist dies — as other people do — of incidental dissipation, accident, or old age, devotion and self-sacrifice are the themes of the minister’s eulogy. Let him succumb in the course of his work, — as an engineer falls down a hole, or a lawyer gets shot by a client, — he is consecrated as a martyr. Novelists use him as they formerly did cavalry officers, Polish patriots, or aviators. If an epidemiologist on a plague study talked and behaved in the manner of the hero of Arrowsmith, he would not only be useless, but would be regarded as something of a yellow ass and a nuisance by his associates. And de Kruif is far too intelligent a man not to have known, when he wrote his thriller on Men against Death, that raucous laughter would be its reception in the laboratories and in the field where the work he describes is being done.

As a matter of fact, men go into this branch of work from a number of motives, the last of which is a selfconscious desire to do good. The point is that it remains one of the few sporting propositions left for individuals who feel the need of a certain amount of excitement. Infectious disease is one of the few genuine adventures left in the world. The dragons are all dead, and the lance grows rusty in the chimney corner. Wars are exercises in ballistics, chemical ingenuity, administration, hard physical labor, and longdistance mass murder. Ships have wireless equipment. Our own continent is a stage route of gas stations, and the Indians own oil wells. Africa is a playground for animal photographers or museum administrators and their wives, who go there partly to have their pictures taken with one foot on a dead lion or elephant and disgusted-looking black boys carrying boxes of champagne and biscuits on their patient heads. Flying is adventurous enough, but little more than a kind of acrobatics for garage mechanics, like automobile racing. But, however secure and wellregulated civilized life may become, bacteria, Protozoa, viruses, infected fleas, lice, ticks, mosquitoes, and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce when neglect, poverty, famine, or war lets down the defenses. And even in normal times they prey on the weak, the very young, and the very old, living along with us, in mysterious obscurity waiting their opportunities. About the only genuine sporting proposition that remains unimpaired by the relentless domestication of a once free-living human species is the war against these ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in the dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice, and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and waylay us in our food and drink and even in our love.


We shall now discuss the relationship between science and art — a subject that has nothing to do with typhus fever, but was forced upon us by the literary gentleman spoken of in the last section.

What follows will be received with contemptuous shrugs by the professionally literary. There is a prejudice in America that specialists should not trespass beyond their own paddocks, however interestedly they may look over the rails. But literary critics are constantly telling us that science is this or that — ‘science should not be exalted out of its place,’ and so on; and since we cannot possibly know less about literature than most of these gentlemen know about science, we venture to proceed, hoping that Messrs. Edmund Wilson, Van Wyck Brooks, Mumford, Max Eastman, and others who were the ‘Younger School,’ until they grew middle-aged, will skip this part of our discussion.

The biologist is in a peculiarly difficult position. He cannot isolate individual reactions and study them one by one, as the chemist often can. He is deprived of the mathematical forecasts by which the physicist can so frequently guide his experimental efforts. Nature sets the conditions under which the biologist works, and he must accept her terms or give up the task altogether.

He knows that physicochemical analysis will never give the final clue to life processes; yet he recognizes that ‘vitalism’ and ‘neovitalism’ are little more than a sort of amorphous theology born of a sense of the helplessness of mere ‘mechanism.’2 So the patient biologist plods along, piling up his empirical observations as honestly as he can — getting what satisfaction he may from the fact that he is helping, by infinite increments, to reduce the scope of vitalistic vagueness to narrower and narrower limits. As Bergson puts it: ‘A very small element of a curve is near being a straight line; and the smaller it is, the nearer. . . . So, likewise, “vitality” is tangent, at any and every point, to physical and chemical forces. ... In reality [however], life is no more made up of physicochemical elements than a curve is composed of straight lines.’ The biologist is constantly differentiating the curve of vitality, quite aware that mankind can approach but never reach the ‘limiting value’ of complete comprehension. Moreover, he knows — whenever he attacks a problem — that before he can advance toward his objective he must first recede into analysis of the individual elements that compose the complex systems with which he is occupied.

Such difficulties engender a habit of mind that has hampered us in the present undertaking. We approached the writing of the biography of typhus fever with the careless confidence which always accompanies the first conception of an experimental objective. We were first deflected into contemplation of the general methods of biographical writing; then arose the question why men occupied themselves with the study of disease. We thought we were through with preliminaries, when our literary friend dropped in again, and proceeded to scatter salt upon our enthusiasm.

‘How,’ he said, ‘can a person who has spent his life cultivating bacteria; inoculating guinea pigs, rabbits, mice, horses, and monkeys; posting about the dirty corners of the world in the study of epidemics; catching rats in foreign cellars; disinfecting, delousing, fumigating; looking at rashes, down throats and into other apertures of man and animals; breeding lice, bedbugs, fleas, and ticks; examining sputum, blood, urine, stools, milk, water, and sewage — how,’ he repeated, ‘can such a person, who is not quite a scientist and nothing of an artist, presume to undertake a task which no one not an artist could successfully accomplish? You might be right about the keyhole biographers and the pasteurized Rabelaisian school of Freudian critics, but is that any worse than the literaryscientific spinster movement? Do you want to be like Dr. Collins of New York, “ the-Doctor-looks-at-this, theDoctor-looks-at-that" business ?‘

‘But!’ we replied —

‘Look at all the rest of the middleaged scientists who have made fools of themselves dabbling with art. Read the Atlantic Monthly. Do you want to be like Beebe or Julian Huxley?’

‘Good Lord,’ I said, ‘one need n’t stop being a bacteriologist just because one takes an intelligent interest in other things! Here in America we seem to expect a specialist to become a sort of Taylorized factory worker. Why should a man look at the world through only one knot hole?’

‘Oh, look through a dozen or climb up and look over the fence if you like. But keep still about things you’re not trained to handle. Biography is a job for an artist. Stick your head out of your laboratory window and watch the world go by. But if you want to write, pull it in again and write for the Journal of Experimental Medicine. You’ll only end, if you keep this up, by losing what little reputation you’ve got.’

‘But,’ we demurred, ‘is a man to be denied an intelligent appreciation of art just because he knows something about a science? Is literature to be appraised only by those who have time to read after breakfast? What’s the essential difference between art and science anyway?’

‘That’s a difficult question,’ he said. ‘ Goethe might have answered it, but he did n’t think it was worth while. The late war between the humanists and anti-humanists might have brought an answer — only both sides were so angry at each other and so ignorant of science that they neglected the main issue. Babbitt, with his vast erudition, might have found a reply if he had lived. Toward the end, the small fry were keeping him too busy with his heels. Anyway, neither you nor I know enough to deal with it.’

Our friend’s opinions on matters of this sort have always carried much weight with us, and, in this case, they impelled us to delay embarking upon our project — which, as he said, transcended our scientific training — until we had given thought to the essential differences, if there were any, between science and art.

We approached the problem modestly by examining the opinions of others, and found that men far wiser than ourselves had failed to agree. Eddington and Jeans incline to limit science to the ‘metrical or mathematical descriptions of phenomena,’ a conception which would exclude even the biological branches of learning. But, having ascended to these cold heights by laborious upward paths of reason, they sit down in their metaphysical toboggans and swish back into the warm and comfortable vales of theology. Dingle attempts a more liberal view, defining science as a method of ’dealing rationally with experiences which have a certain quality; namely, that they are common to all normal people.’ This is dreadful English, but — once parsed — it means, conversely, that the territory of art is that of experiences which are ’peculiar to the individual, or perhaps shared by a limited number of others.’ This opinion is much like the preDarwinian method of classifying animals by their superficial similarities, which made the whale a fish and the bat a bird. Whitehead penetrates more deeply beneath the mere morphology of the problem into its comparative anatomy and physiology. He includes, in the category of science, the biological branches and geology, and, more than that, he regards naturalistic art (Leonardo) as closely akin to science. Indeed, he finds in great literature — for instance, in the ‘scientific imagination’ of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, in their visions of Fate ‘ urging a tragic incident to its inevitable issue ’ — the same principle of ‘Order’ which is the ‘vision possessed by science.’ If Aristotle could return to us long enough to familiarize himself with modern scientific thought, we venture to say he would come pretty close to agreeing with Whitehead. Incidentally, what a ‘kick’ Aristotle would get out of Harvard!

That any sharp separation between science and art is impossible was also in the mind of Havelock Ellis, when he wrote the following passage: ‘To press through, to reveal, to possess, to direct and to ennoble, that is the task and the longing alike of the lover and the natural discoverer; so that every Ross or Franklin is a Werther of the Pole, and whoever is in love is a Mungo Park of the spirit.’ We should have taken more pleasure in this quotation had Mr. Park’s Christian name been other than ‘Mungo.’ But, as it stands, it expresses the burden of the thought that was developing in our own mind.


To most of the modern literary critics — probably because of their almost incredible ignorance of scientific thought — the so-called scientist is a ‘mere rationalist,’ and science is held, in respect to art, as photography is to painting. This separation on the basis of precision is utterly untenable. Science is not a whit more photographic than is art. Measurements and formulations are, even in the so-called exact — the physical — sciences, not much more than reasonably accurate approximations. Scientific method is again and again forced to employ abstract conceptions, irrational numbers like √2 and √3, the line without breadth, the point without volume, zero, the negative quantity, or the idea of infinity. And scientific thought continually sets sail from ports of hypothesis and fiction, advance bases of the exploring intellect. Matter becomes molecules, molecules become atoms; atoms, ions; ions, electrons; and these, in their turn, become uncomprehended sources of energy — not more clear as seizable reality than the poet’s conception of the ‘soul,’ which he knows only from its ‘energy’ — the yearnings, delights, and sorrows which he feels. The history of science is full of examples of what, in art, would be spoken of as inspiration, but for which Whitehead’s definition, ‘speculative reason,’ seems much more appropriate.

It is only too painfully obvious, moreover, that neither the scientist nor the artist is ever a ‘creator.’ The word ‘creative,’so incessantly misused by our younger critical school, is a fiction of that optimism about human achievement which — it has been said — thrives most vigorously in lunatic asylums. Nature, as Goethe puts it, runs its course by such eternal and necessary principles that even the gods themselves cannot alter them. The most that the scientist and the artist accomplish is new understanding of things that have always been. They ‘create’ a clearer perception. They are both, in this sense, observers,3 the obvious difference being that the scientist impersonally describes the external world, whereas the artist expresses the effects which external things exert upon his own mind and heart. In both cases, the more generally applicable the observations, the greater is the science or art.

Would it not be fair to say that an achievement of observation becomes science or art according to the degree to which its comprehension calls upon perception by the reason or by the emotions, respectively? The capacities of intelligence form a sort of spectrum which extends from what we may call an infra-emotional to an ultra-reason range. At the infra-emotional extreme lie the perceptions set in motion by music and by lyrical poetry. At the opposite end — that of pure reason — is placed the perceptional capacity for mathematics. Between the two there is a wide range of overlapping where art is scientific and science artistic. Literature in the sense of prose may be taken to hold a middle ground, shading on the left into epic and narrative poetry and, on the right, through psychology, biology, and so forth, toward mathematics.

‘What happens when you go off the deep end on either side?’ asked my friend.

‘Well, beyond the 10-¹° range experience seems to show that the end organs give out and the physicist joins the church; whereas on the other side, as I should judge from Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and their imitators, the spinal cord begins to horn in on the brain. In either case it ceases to be science or art.‘


I continued the discussion with my friend at our next meeting.

‘On that basis,’ he said, ‘it should be easy to classify any performance by a sort of intellectual spectroscopic analysis.’

‘With the older forms it was usually easy to fit them into their proper places in the spectrum. Critics like Coleridge or Sainte-Beuve needed to concern themselves only with style, beauty of diction, clarity of thought, intensity, sincerity, depth, and the qualities of taste and sensitiveness which, while vague and subtle, were still within the scope of the underanged mind. Art could be judged by any informed and intelligent critic without recourse to border-line psychiatry. The corner was turned by the French symbolists — who followed Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Laforgue. On occasion these great men came close to the jumping-off place of uncomprehensibility. But in the main they achieved a great beauty by the very dusk and mist through which their thoughts, sufferings, and joys were mysteriously, grotesquely, vaguely, but still effectively perceived. One cannot, with Laserre, deny them their just places merely because they applied their superb gifts to tristesse and laideur. We make no plea for a return to Tennysonism or the Longfellow era, but had Sainte-Beuve been required to pass judgment on certain passages of T. S. Eliot, the later Joyce, or Gertrude Stein, he would surely have gone into consultation with Charcot or Bernheim, a dilemma which our modern critics seem to admit — in their judgments of modern work — by their habitual appeal to Sigmund Freud. It is, of course, difficult, even in medical practice, to survey sharply the line between sanity and border-line derangements. But when the critic of a work of art needs psychiatric training this fact alone would serve to throw suspicion on the artistic value of his subject. The real difficulty of applying our kind of spectroscopic analysis to much of the modern stuff lies in the fact that a good deal of it lacks the rationality of science without possessing the emotional appeal of art.

‘Let us examine some of it. Take T. S. Eliot — who, in his prose, shows great clarity of thought and to whom no one will deny talent, originality, and, on occasion, great beauty. But in much of his poetry he plays, as has been aptly remarked, a guessing game with readers, whom he seems to appraise, apparently with some reason, as imbeciles. “Guess which memory picture of my obviously one-sided erudition I am alluding to? See note 6a.” Then he drops suddenly, after a few lines of majestic verse, into completely irrelevant babble.

‘In the room the women go to and fro
Talking of Michael Angelo.

One is tempted to add, “Eenie, meenie, minic, mo.” Or this: —

‘Madame Sosostri, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe
With a wicked pack of cards.

‘ Why “ nevertheless” ? Was she wise because she had a bad cold? Or this (one has the choice of innumerable passages): —

‘ Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth.

‘ Is that poetry? It sounds like trivial prose. It certainly is n’t science.’

‘Of course it’s not fair to take things out of their contexts like that. The thing as a whole symbolizes the Waste Land of modern disillusionment. Of course it’s hard for a scientist to understand.’

‘It’s not whether a thing is hard to understand. It’s whether, once understood, it makes any sense. Every now and then my monkeys get loose in the laboratory and achieve brilliant and bizarre effects by smashing bottles of colored liquids against microscopes and Bunsen burners. The result is a stimulating chaos of lights, sounds, and excitements. But when they get through there’s nothing left but disorder and litter that has to be swept up before orderly scientific work can be resumed. You can do the same thing with the workshops of art. What I don’t understand is why a man of such obvious power will do that sort of thing.’

‘I suppose you will say the same thing about Baudelaire?’ he said.

‘Oh, dear, it’s the old stuff that these people derive themselves from Baudelaire and Rimbaud and Laforgue. But those men were making discoveries. Baudelaire was an organic chemist. He synthetized extraordinarily repulsive but new compounds. But incoherence and a bad smell don’t make a Baudelaire.’

‘Well, let’s try another; perhaps you recognize this one?

‘Nearly all of it to be as a wife has a cow. All of it to be as a wife has a cow, all of it to be as a wife has a cow, a love story. As to be all of it as to be a wife as a wife has a cow, a love story, all of it as to be all of it as a wife all of it as to be as a wife has a cow a love story. . . .


‘A meal is mutton mutton why is lamb cheaper, it is cheaper because so little is more.’

‘That’s Gertrude Stein,’ I said, ‘but listen to this one: —

‘ Balloons — colored balloons — my colored balloons — Who busted my balloons? Bolony balloons; they have punctured my categorical imperative.’

‘I don’t seem to remember that in her writings,’ he replied.

‘No, that is n’t Gertrude Stein. That’s Alice Gray, whom I knew in the McLean Hospital. She was fifty, but she imagined she was a baby. Listen to another: —

‘Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot . . .’

‘You’re only trying to be funny,’ he interrupted me. ‘As a matter of fact, Gertrude Stein can write quite sensibly when she wants to.’

‘Why does n’t she?’ I asked.

‘She’s practising automatic writing.’4

‘Then it’s science.’

‘Oh, no — she is creating an impression by an alternation of conscious and subconscious explosions.’

‘Then it’s art — in the sense of fireworks.’

‘But she’s had an immense influence on younger writers,’ he said.

‘So have Mrs. Eddy and P. T. Barnum,’ I replied. ‘Without Baudelaire there might not have been a Rimbaud or a Verlaine. Without Buffalo Bill, P. T. Barnum, or Mrs. Eddy there might have been no Gertrude Stein and Joyce might have continued to write distinguished prose.’

‘Speaking of Joyce,’ he said, ‘have you tried “Tam and Sham” or whatever their names are? Listen!

‘Eins within a space and a weary wide space it wast, are wohned a Mookse. The onesomeness wast all to lonely, archunsitlike, broady oval and a Mookse he would a walking go (My hood! cries Antony Romeo). So one grand summer evening after a great morning and his good supper of gammon and spittish, having flabelled his eyes, pilleoled his nostrils, vacticanated his ears . . .’

‘Stop!’ I cried. ‘I got a licking for that sort of thing when I was a little boy.’

‘Is it science or art?’ he asked.

‘Neither, of course,’ I said. ‘But what puzzles me still is why they do it. It would be too easy to dismiss the matter by assuming that they were mildly crazy. Moreover, the ability of the ones we have mentioned to return, at will, to the rational state excludes this.’

‘You forget,’ he said, ‘the idea of Poesie Pure — the less it means, the better; the approximation of poetry to music of Walter Pater and of Moore.’

‘The relationship of poetry to music has also come in for a great deal of learned twaddle. Valéry says the poet is merely a sort of musician. Wyndham Lewis calls it “critical mysticism.” They speak a lot (Brémond) about the “summons from within,” the “weight of immortality upon the heart,” poetry which “goes further than the word which expresses it,” and so forth. Sometimes the critic goes much further in his mysticism than the poets he writes about.‘

Incidentally it is a curious phenomenon that some of the great scientists, when they become critics and are caught in efforts to explain their own æsthetic reactions to poetry, become almost as mystical as the literary analysts. Occasionally a man’s authority is so great — in most particulars rightly so — that to criticize him is, in the eyes of the learned world, like spelling God with a small g. I refer to Whitehead, and in disagreeing with him I feel much like a Neanderthal man attacking a mastodon with a beanshooter. When he discusses the application of Clerk Maxwell’s equation to the interior of the atom, he has me on my back. But when he begins to attribute reference to some form of Kantian, Berkeleyan, or Platonic idealism to Shelley in his poem on Mont Blanc, or derives Wordsworth’s nature worship from a ‘criticism of science,’ he merely reveals his own inability to take his foot off the brake of reason and coast freely with the emotions.

Now, when Shelley writes about the cloud or about Mont Blanc, he is not thinking of the ‘elusive endless change of things,’ nor is he consciously refusing ‘ to accept the abstract materialism of science.’ He is expressing in magnificent images the thoughts and emotions that are aroused in him by the nature he views; and no amount of philosophical analysis can give the reader Shelley’s full effect. The sheer beauty of the shifting thoughts and feelings, and the musical beauty, — not only musical in sound, but in the harmony of images as well, — must arouse in the reader the same reaction, transmitted from the poet which nature aroused in the poet, himself. It is the old question that Shelley himself answered by saying: ‘To analyze a work of art into its elements is as useless as throwing a violet into a crucible.’

Of course, poetry approaches music, but, unlike music, it has the power of concreteness in thought and imagery. The greatest poetry is communication, and is clear. It may, through pure lyricism, progress sanely to the symbolism of Mallarmé and his contemporaries, growing less and less intellectually clear — more and more dependent upon imagery and suggestion. When it goes beyond that, it may come to the deep end where it tries to be purely saxophonic, as in the ‘jug, jug, jug,’ or the ‘bam boo bim bam tree’ gibberish in certain passages of Mr. Eliot. Baudelaire had this in mind when in L’Art Romantique he said that ‘there are subjects which belong to painting, others to music, others to literature,’ and ‘Est-ce par une fatalité des décadences qu’aujourd’hui chaque art manifeste l’envie d’empiéter sur l’art voisin?’5 When a work of literature, even if it is written in short, capitalized lines, becomes utterly incomprehensible to the sane and sensitive, it has gone off the deep end.


Why, we must ask ourselves, have individuals of unquestionably great powers chosen to play with their minds like captive monkeys with their genitalia? It would be merely tragic had they not created a sort of ‘holyroller’ school of followers among the permanent intellectual undergraduates. Wyndham Lewis comes close to a definition when he calls it the ‘idiot child’ cult — the child overshadowed by the imbecile. As we have said, Skinner thinks, in the Stein case, it is conscious experimentation with ‘automatic writing.’

One could also postulate: —

(1) That they are consciously pulling the legs of the large neo-intellectual public either for fun or for profits.

(2) That they are suffering from a well-recognized form of exhibitionism — the craving for sensational notice, whether approval or attack. This is the mild derangement that probably explains mediums. It is the impulse that, in a less pronounced form, leads people to write to the newspaper, to lend their names to cigarette advertisements, or to say in print that they ‘suffered from fits’ until they had taken one bottle of Neuropop.

(3) That they are seriously carrying on psychological experiments with themselves — in which case they ought to do it in decent privacy, as though they were taking drugs.

Or (4) that it is barely possible they are yielding to the uncontrollable impulse to expose their own diseases, just as the physically sick like to tell about their operations or their chronic colitis.

If they were commonplace people this exercise would attract only sympathetic attention. These are formidable machines and one wishes the insulation had not burnt off the power lines.6

However one looks at it, it appears to the medically informed that these people are substituting the spinal cord for the brain, or at any rate are moving down from the frontal lobes toward the basal ganglia.

‘You’ve talked a great deal,’ said my friend, ‘but in the end it comes down to a definition of beauty — does n’t it?’

‘Well, give me one,’ I replied.

‘Here’s the latest one,’ he said. ‘Beauty is the mutual adaptation of the several factors in an occasion of experience. Thus, in its primary sense, beauty is a quality which finds its exemplification in actual occasions. Or, put it conversely, it is a quality in which such occasions can severally participate.’

‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit,’ I replied. ‘Bird thou never wert.’

‘Well, let’s go on,’ he replied. ‘In order to understand this definition of beauty, it is necessary to keep in mind three doctrines which belong to the metaphysical system in terms of which the world is being interpreted in this discussion. These three doctrines, respectively, have regard to the mutual relations (a) between the objective content of a prehension and the subjective form of that prehension, and (b) between the subjective form of various prehensions in the same occasion, and (c) between the subjective form of a prehension and the spontaneity involved in the subjective aim of the prehending occasion.’

‘Stop,’ I said. ‘Is that by Gertrude Stein?’

‘No,’ he replied. ‘It’s by Whitehead.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ I said. ‘I think I’ve decided that it’s perfectly safe for me to go ahead with my biography of typhus.’

Indeed, I reflected when my friend had departed, whenever I think about these things for any length of time I feel grateful for good honest diseases like typhus, syphilis, and a few others. You always know where you have them. And if you begin indulging in ‘whimso-whamso ’ while you are engaged with them, they are sure to make a fool of you by putting you on your back. You either leave them alone or approach them with cautious competence.

Think what might happen to our modern critics if the great dead whom they inexpertly dissect could infect them with psychic boils and carbuncles; or if Mr. Joyce’s preoccupation with the intestinal functions, or if Mr. Eliot’s shadow boxing with passion, or if the lubricities and sexual neuropathies of our too modern writers could subtly invade the brains where they were engendered with locomotor ataxia or paresis. Indeed, for all I know, perhaps they can. And there is no arsphenamin for the psychic treponema.

Typhus is far less perilous.

  1. Dr. Zinsser’s paper forms a chapter of his forthcoming book, Rats, Lice, and History. — EDITOR
  2. And, indeed, ultimately they both encounter the same inevitable perplexity, since, as Paley rightly asserts, mechanism presupposes God as the mechanician. This is the difficulty faced by all the recent astronomical and physicist school of ponderers. — AUTHOR
  3. I. A. Richards expresses this function of the artist as an observer of the ‘facts ’ of human emotions in a precise manner when he says, ‘In the arts we find the record, in the only form in which these things can be recorded, of the experiences which have seemed worth having to the most sensitive and discriminating persons.’ In this sense Leonardo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Dostoevski, and countless other artists were as truly accurate observers in the field of human experience as were Newton and Pascal in the field of the external world. André Gide means the same thing when he says, ‘ Everything has always existed in man . . . and what new limes uncover in him has always slumbered there. . . . How many hidden heroes await only the example of a hero in a book, only a spark of life given off by his life in order to love, only a word from him in order to speak.’ — AUTHOR
  4. See Skinner in the Atlantic Monthly for January 1934. — AUTHOR
  5. It is pertinent, in this connection, to ask oneself what would have been the result if D. H. Lawrence had been a professional instead of an occasional painter. A painted Lady Chatterley — the most exquisite technique notwithstanding — would surely have been so completely out of drawing, with the lower parts so much larger than the upper, as to have been hardly recognizable as a human figure. The picture could not have been hung, even in a speak-easy. In this matter of disproportionate emphasis on those phases of a subject which correspond to the writer’s own neuroses, literature can ‘get away with a great deal that would be impossible in architecture, sculpture, painting, or even music. — AUTHOR
  6. One could of course multiply examples with ‘cummins,’ Ezra Pound, and so forth. We distinctly exclude Hart Crane, whom we had occasion to know when we were working on typhus in Mexico. He was a man of great talent, appealing and tragic, for he was very sick in spirit. — AUTHOR