More Truth Than Poetry: The Biography of R. S

The Biography of R.S.

BY HANS ZINSSER

XXX

MEMOIRS and diaries of the relatively undistinguished are of value in recording the reactions which important events of any period call forth in the daily lives, habits, and thoughts of the average, intelligent contemporary. They are Lenotre’s Petite Histoire. But, since no one person can see the whole, the clear apprehension of any particular period requires the study of the reactions of many types, selected from a variety of temperaments and occupations. Realizing this, I never took these fragmentary records of R. S. as seriously as he feared I might take them. Yet, on reading over what I had written about him so far, it seemed to me that he was a particularly interesting specimen for the petite histoire of our times, since he represented that growing class of the scientifically trained who began to suspect — toward the later years of the interval between the two last wars — that scientific progress was so far outstripping other forms of social development that it was endangering our civilization almost as much as it was benefiting it.

Unlike that analogous period of scientific energy which occurred in the seventeenth century, our own age has lacked the balance of a parallel æsthetic intelligence. The seventeenth century, as Whitehead says, ‘provided intellectual genius adequate for the greatness of its occasions,’ Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, Newton, Leibnitz, were preceded by Leonardo and were, culturally considered, contemporaries of Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Descartes. Moreover, the science of that epoch, exerting its influence almost purely in intellectual and philosophical directions, had not begun to transform the existence of man by its offspring, technology and industrialism. But now the accelerated pace of material progress, which had started in the early nineteenth century with the substitution of coal for human hands, was beginning to outstrip the capacity of man to direct its velocity.

Distrust of the recent preponderance of science over æsthetic development has been voiced from time to time by serious critics — Brunetière, Lasserre, Babbitt, Henry Adams, Benda, Brooks, and many others who, in one way or another, preached the earlier doctrine of Boutroux, a follower of Comte, that ‘la science doit être soumise au sentiment.’ But, coming from men largely preoccupied with letters, it usually amounted to little more than a quite justified but ineffective scolding of scientists for their neglect of values other than those of the material world. The weakness of such criticism was always the lack of sufficient knowledge on the part of the critics, who surveyed the scene quite as one-sidedly as did the scientists of whom they were complaining.

We are living in an age in which the sciences not only are transforming the structure of society and the habits of men, but are equally confirming an orderliness of natural forces vaguely suspected, hitherto, by philosophers and great artists. Goethe recognized this orderliness and put his finger on the eternal quandary of the philosophers — that the creative force, whatever it might be, was powerless to modify the course of its own creation — when he said: ‘Die Natur wirkt nach ewigen, notwendigen, dergestalt göttlichen Gesetzen, dass die Gottheit selbst daran nichts ändernbounted The criticism of the future, therefore, to have any value, will demand a fundamental comprehension at least of the effects of the new understanding of nature upon human thoughts and affairs. For, after all, it is awareness of the scene as a whole which must form the equipment of the critic.

In response to such a need, there has arisen a literature, largely contributed by distinguished physicists — Eddington, Jeans, Dingle, and Millikan among them — who began to contemplate the modern world in its broader relations from a base line of deep scientific wisdom. But, as has ever been the case with physicists, they soon gave the poor earth little thought in their preoccupations with the universe. Yet some of them, notably Dingle, have tried to apply the logical processes of scientific method to the criticism of art; and a more than usually well-informed literary critic, I. A. Richards, made an attempt to meet these efforts halfway by approaching the scientific point of view from literature as a base.

From none of these did R. S. gain much comfort. He became, however, a profound admirer of Whitehead, who, it seemed to him, combined — in the wide horizon of his mature wisdom — deep erudition of the sciences with sensitiveness to æsthetic values, appearing in this regard to possess some of the qualities, less creative but perhaps more contemporaneously sound, of a Goethe. It was in Whitehead’s diagnosis of the sick world that R. S. recognized his own, less learnedly arrived at, to the effect that with the rapid development of industrialism and urbanization (both consequences of the scientific control of natural forces) there was a neglect of the ‘æsthetic qualities of the new material environment’; there was a limitation of the ‘moral outlook’ at a time when it was most needed. The ‘moral pace of progress,’ says Whitehead, ‘requires a greater force of direction,’ but a grooved professionalism (also a consequence of the headlong rush of science) has brought it about that ‘the leading intellects lack balance’ and ‘the task of coördination is left to those who lack either the force or the character to succeed in some definite career.’ The corrective, therefore, it seemed to R. S., should lie not in the checking of science, but rather in catching up with it.

It is one thing to make a diagnosis, quite another to devise an operation or a remedy. Whitehead was by no means the only diagnostician who put his finger on the modern world’s McBurney’s point. But he was the particular one who — standing, in the tranquillity of his wisdom, ‘au-dessus de la mêleé ‘ — seemed to make the situation objectively clear to R. S. There was in many other critics, especially those like Babbitt and other lesser humanists, in writers, poets, and artists generally, a feebly masked resentment against the scientists who seemed to them to usurp too much of the modern world’s attention. They appeared to feel toward science somewhat as the Church did in the sixteenth century.

To R. S. this was confusing, since, with his own profound distrust of mere fact accumulated without philosophical and æsthetic coördination, the philosopher and the great artist were to him the architects who must build the cultural edifice of the future, using science — among other things — as an indispensable part of their equipment. But he found among most of his friends little or no appreciation of the fact that the last forty years had witnessed an era of enlightenment in man’s understanding both of nature and of himself which was not incomparable to the epoch beginning with Galileo.

And yet the specific developments of the modern period, in their correlation of matter and energy and in the application of the exact sciences to biology, appeared to R. S. to bring scientific thought and its effects much closer than ever before to the everyday lives of men. Some of the landmarks of this era he pointed out to me.

New understanding was coming from all directions, often from the leastexpected sources of supposedly ‘pure academic’ investigation. The beauty of the situation was this growing integration of all the sciences in biological research.

But at the same time similar things were happening in biology itself. Up to 1900, the Darwinian conceptions of evolution by continuous natural selection and Weismann’s ideas of heredity had remained virtually unchanged. Almost simultaneously, in 1900, Bateson and De Vries rediscovered the work of Mendel. The laws deduced by Mendel in his experiments with sweet peas, the conception of the dominance or recessive nature of certain qualities, and a numerical relationship between the appearance of the dominant and the recessive in hybrids, became the basis of the modern knowledge of heredity. When the effects of the Mendelian theory of unit characteristics were correlated with microscopic studies of cell cleavage, the carriers of hereditary qualities were sought in the chromosomes of the nuclei of the germ cells, and work such as that of Edmund B. Wilson, on the manner in which chromosomes divide before cell cleavage and are united in pairs in the new cells, strengthened the growing belief that there was some connection between the two. The idea was formulated by Sutton, and in 1910 Thomas H. Morgan brought the matter to a definite conception by his work on the fruit fly, Drosophila.

From these studies originated the idea of genes within the chromosomes — the linkage of numerous hereditary factors in one chromosome. Modern genetics became a logical, if not entirely a precise, science. And soon these principles found application in medicine. A large number of human qualities, ailments, and deformities could now be traced to genetic origin, and, for some of them, it has already been possible to determine which are ‘dominant’ and which ‘recessive.’ Such knowledge made it possible to differentiate many physical and physiological defects into those which are hereditary and those which are due to extraneous causes. It may establish certain principles of human breeding in extreme cases where physical defects are known to be ‘dominant.’

Yet there is no rational basis for immediately embarking on a totalitarian regulation of marriage on a eugenic basis. That is an old story, tried out — as Castle has indicated — in Sparta, and advocated in the Darwinian period by Galton. But social instincts, cultural struggle, and emotional factors are too complex and strong to be even temporarily overcome by a farseeing plan of man-husbandry which cannot be expected to take hold effectively in less than many generations of a control abhorrent to the strongest physiological urge. Moreover, there may be much justifiable difference of opinion concerning the desirable traits toward which such breeding might aim. A six-toed or hunchbacked critic might be judged a more desirable citizen than a morally defective Adonis; or a tuberculous Chopin or a neurotic Shelley than a normal delicatessen merchant. And as far as the socially valuable characteristics are concerned, J. B. S. Haldane holds out the hopeful suggestion that since the virtuous are often rewarded by poverty, and since the poor breed quicker than the rich, we may possibly expect some slight, though slow improvement. His mathematical treatment of the subject does not, at any rate, support the kind of eventual system which, one imagines, some eugenists might approve — that is, limiting procreation to those holding a ‘fornication license’ from the State House, with number plates appropriately attached. Even science must leave some things to what Ehrlich called Die Uralte Protoplasma-Weisheit.

Thus, thought R. S., science, instead of helping to release mankind from toil, poverty, and war, actually seemed to be accelerating materialism, hatred, and the forces of destruction. And in its fundamental aspects science was demonstrating that, however deeply it might penetrate into the mechanisms of nature and the universe, it would never — alone — solve the ultimate problems or appease that hunger of the spirit, that yearning toward an ethical ideal, which, in one form or another, he believed to be an inherent, biological attribute of human beings, as strong as the hungers of the body. For its existence, what more convincing scientific proof could be desired than the irresistible force with which the teachings of Buddha and of the New Testament had swept across the world and had conquered the imaginations of men, often to the disadvantage of their material interests and racial supremacies? R. S. had seen many of his most admired and distinguished scientific contemporaries, despairing of the powers of reason alone, seek spiritual sanctuary either — acknowledgedly faute de mieux — in the arms of the established Church, or, more deplorably, in some form of mysticism.

Both the desire for and the guidance toward such ‘æsthetic apprehension,’ as Whitehead calls it, were apparent. Yet less and less were they effective in arresting the downward course of our civilization. Some regulating force was needed, something of the heart; and ‘the heart,’ says Anatole France, ‘n’est jamais tout à fait philosopher.' Was recourse to supernatural authority the only alternative for this ‘apprehension’ of the higher values of existence, he asked himself. If so, it appeared to him, the outlook was dark. For the masses of the people, once lured away from a weakening religious control, would be more and more delivered, spiritually hog-tied, to the mercy of pure material forces. It seemed to him that the sole hope lay in a powerful development of the arts.

Now there were times — for a while in Athens, later in the Renaissance, and possibly among the Elizabethans (when, as Theodore Spencer has said, Shakespeare reduced to poetic order and made recognizable the common experience of his age) — when art was a living influence in the lives of people. But those were simpler days, without newspapers, cinema, or radio. Then the taste of the average man was formed by the sincere artists of his time. The artist was a hero, was close to earth, close to man, and comprehensible in this ‘common experience.’

It was too much to expect, of course, that in times as complex as our own, with huge populations of widely diverse interests and educational backgrounds, the best in art could find its way, unaided, into the hearts and minds of the people. The output of artistic endeavor, good, bad, and terrible, sincere and insincere, was too overwhelming, and too strong the temptation for commercial exploitation of the spurious and the corruption of taste. Here, thought R. S., was a situation which called desperately for the development of sound criticism in its broadest sense; in which the art of criticism might become one of the most important factors in civilization. Critics were needed to interpret, to segregate, to create judgment, to come out of their ivory towers and carry the battle for æsthetic standards into the world of everyday life.

Never before was there such an important function for great critics, thought R. S., critics who — like Goethe, Coleridge, Sainte-Beuve, or Taine — could lead the intelligent and sensitive up hills whence they could see many things to gladden their hearts and enrich their spirits, which, unguided, they might never have beheld. Then, filtering downward, from the few to the many, standards and taste might eventually emerge. At any rate, art might regain the dignity to which it is entitled by man’s need of it.

But a great critic, said Voltaire, is ‘an artist who possesses great knowledge and taste without prejudice and without envy,’ and he adds: ‘Cela est difficile à trouver.’

In spite of Voltaire’s definition of a critic, R. S. wanted to air his own views on modern art, and incidentally on the critics who, he thought, were more and more devoting their talents to an almost scientific defense of the obscure, incomprehensible, and psychologically aberrant performances of modernistic experimenters — valuable, perhaps, in developing innovations of expression and breaking down time-worn conventions, but, as Archibald MacLeish has put it, incapable of the ‘construction which must now be done to make recognizable to us our experience of our time.’ R. S. had little sympathy with or appreciation of much that was obscure, incomprehensible, and erratic in the productions of the ultra-experimenters. He held to the old-fashioned opinion of Boileau: —

Avant done que d’écrire, apprenez àa penser
Quelque sujet qu’on traite, ou plaisant ou sublime,
Que toujours le bon sens s’accorde avec la rime.

Yet even in many of the most extreme he could see a vitality of effort born of an increased pressure for artistic expression. Moreover, there began in 1900, especially in America, an era of productivity in verse and prose — satire and fiction — which, however far from the mark some of it may have fallen, still indicated that the need for artistic interpretation of the modern world was beginning to assert itself. And with it there developed a parallel new energy in architecture, in painting, in sculpture, and in the appreciation of music. Best of all, much of this was good, strong, and sincere, and some of it beginning actually to penetrate increasingly into the population. And though one can rarely certify a great critic until the passage of time has confirmed his judgment, R. S. thought that men like Brooks, Wilson, Can by, DeVoto, MacLeish, and some others, were trying to do an honest and increasingly effective job.

R. S. was optimistic. He believed that the tide was turning; that, in America at least, the creative artist would play an increasing rôle in the development of culture; and that this was the strength of our future even more than our gold reserves — the significance of which, by the way, he could never understand.

I was a little nervous about letting R. S. — who was, in my opinion, artistically quite naïve — stick out his neck any further in his self-imposed rôle as a critic. Since his own preoccupation, outside of science, had been chiefly with poetry, I asked him, instead of criticizing the work of contemporaries, to tell me what it was that gave him satisfaction in the poetry he read and which he tried to write himself. I add his reply more from the desire to give a complete picture of the man than from any idea that his views were either original or profound.

‘Poetry,’ he said, ‘has been to me much like horses. Though I was often cheated in consequence, I never enjoyed critically appraising a horse, walking around it, feeling its hocks, looking at its teeth, and then seeing other people ride it. A horse meant little to me until I could feel it under me, between my thighs, swing with the rhythm of its gaits, rise over fences with it, and lean over its neck in the exhilaration of its galloping vigor.

‘And so a poem means nothing to me unless it can carry me away with the gentle or passionate pace of its emotion, over obstacles of reality into meadows and covers of illusion. Nor is it the material that matters — whether it be the old stirrings of nature and love, or war, or whether it deals with the tragedies and complexities of human fate. The sole criterion for me is whether it can sweep me with it into emotion or illusion of beauty, terror, tranquillity, or even (Herder to the contrary) disgust, — as in Baudelaire, — so long as it arouses fundamental feelings or reflections which, encountered without the poet, might have passed half realized, like a tongue of flame or a flying leaf. For the poet arrests emotions at their points of greatest supportable heat — just short of the melting point, as it were — and can hold in that perfect state, permanent in his words and metres, those feelings and comprehensions which pass too quickly to be held through the minds of ordinary men. The poet imprisons them in words or color or marble, so that we lesser men can contemplate them and recognize in them our own hearts and minds.’

This was the last serious conversation I had with R. S.

XXXI

R. S. returned from his last professional journey badly damaged. On the steamer he was humiliated by the fact that not only occasional youngsters but even a British general of approximately his own age could outlast him at deck tennis. Also the sun, instead of tinging his skin a healthy brown, turned him the lemon yellow of the sunburned anæmic. He made a tentative diagnosis on himself before arrival in port.

So when he got home he went to see an old friend, a doctor, who had pulled him through a nasty infection a few years before. This friend was one of those precious individuals whom nature had meant to be physicians. He was fond of R. S. and showed it most helpfully by his affectionate abstinence from any expression of sympathy. And R. S. told me that, together, this good friend and he stood for a long time at the office window, looking out at the Charles River Basin. It was one of Lowell’s June days, in the early afternoon. Bright sunshine was reflected from the water and from dozens of little white sails on the dinghies that were racing along the Cambridge shore. The Esplanade was alive with contented men and women, strolling and sitting on the benches; and the sounds of playing children came up through the open window like the voices of many birds. The world looked a bright and attractive place.

But in those few minutes, R. S. told me, something took place in his mind that he regarded as a sort of compensatory adjustment to the thought that he would soon be dead. In the prospect of death, life seemed to be given new meaning and fresh poignancy. It seemed, he said, from that moment, as though all that his heart felt and his senses perceived was taking on a ‘deep autumnal tone’ and an increased vividness. From now on, instead of being saddened, he found — to his own delighted astonishment — that his sensitiveness to the simplest experiences, even for things that in other years he might hardly have noticed, was infinitely enhanced.

When he awoke in the mornings, the early sun striking across the bed, the light on the branches of the trees outside his window, the noise of ‘his’ sparrows, and the sounds of the awakening street aroused in him all kinds of gentle and pleasing memories of days long past which had left their imprints — indelible but, until now, not consciously realized — of contentment and happiness. It was quite the opposite of the ‘woe of the remembering of happy times’ in Canto V of the Inferno, beginning ‘ Nessun maggior dolore’ and so on. R. S. felt a deeper tenderness for the people whom he loved, and a warmer sympathy and understanding for many whose friendship he had lost in one way or another.

Each moment of the day, every prospect on meadow or hill or sea, every change of light from dawn to dusk, excited him emotionally with an unexpected clarity of perception and a new suggestiveness of association. Thinking of the shortness of the time still left him, he reread — as though for a sort of P.P.C. conversation — the books that had meant much to him at the various stages of his life, and found them more moving, more deeply wise, or more hilariously robust, according to their natures. Everything that went on about him or within him struck upon his heart and mind with a new and powerful resonance. So, on the whole, he was far from either meriting or desiring sympathy. The only thing that depressed him at all in those days was the thought of horses. He couldn’t stand the sight of his saddles, his bridles, and the various bits that hung about his bedroom — and which he now packed out of sight in the cellar.

As his malady progressed, he had another variety of experience which, to some others more conditioned to religious belief than he was, might have signified an intimation of the separateness of body and soul.

He said to me: ‘Here I am, me as always. My mind more alive and vivid than ever before; my sensitiveness keener; my affections stronger. I seem for the first time to see the world in clear perspective; I love people more deeply and more comprehensively; I seem to be just beginning to learn my business and see my work in its proper relationship to science as a whole; I seem to myself to have entered into a period of stronger feelings and saner understanding. And yet here am I — essentially unchanged except for a sort of distillation into a more concentrated me — held in a damaged body which will extinguish me with it when it dies. If it were a horse I was riding that went lame or broke its neck, or a ship on which I was traveling that sprang a leak, I could transfer to another one and leave the old vehicle behind. As it is, my mind and my spirit, my thoughts and my love, all that I really am is inseparably tied up with the failing capacities of these outworn organs.

‘Yet,’ he continued, apostrophizing in a serio-comic mood, ‘poor viscera, I can hardly blame you! You have done your best, and have served me better than could be expected of organs so abused.

When I think of the things that have flowed over and through you! Innumerable varieties of fermented hops and malt and of the grapes of all countries and climates: Vouvray, Anjou, Chablis, Haut Sauternes, Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Riesling, Lachrimæ Christi, Johannisthaler, Berncastler, Saint-Julien, Clos de Mouche, Liebfrauenmilch; endless amounts of pinard and vin du pays; the sour wines of Alsace, of North Africa, and of the Pyrenees; the stronger ones of Spain and Portugal; the Tokay of Hungary; sparkling vintages of Burgundy and of Champagne; Veuve Cliquot and her brothers Mumm and Pommery; and the California brews bought in demijohns; to say nothing of the distillates — flavored and unflavored; cognac, Three-Star Hennessy; whiskeys — Scotch and Irish, Canadian, rye, bourbon, and the yellowish moonshine, colored with chicken droppings, from the Blue Hills; and gin — genuine and synthetic; Schlibovitz from the Balkans, Starka from Poland; and the Vodka of the Steppes; crême de men the and cacao, Marie Brizard, Cointreau, and Calvados.

‘No, no, my organs! I cannot feel that you have let me down. It is quite the other way round. Only now it seems so silly that you must take me with you when I am just beginning to get dry behind the ears.’

Though he had these spells of halfhumorous revolt against the idea that his personality and his increasing joy of living should be so helplessly at the mercy of his deteriorating body, he was still grateful that, in his case, it was this and not the mind that was going to pieces first. He was not, at any time, tempted to seek strength in wishful surrender to a religious faith in which far greater men than he had taken refuge just before death. When this had, astonishingly, happened in the cases of several of his intimate friends, he regarded it as a capitulation of the mind to the fatigue of suffering. Indeed, he became more firm in his determination to see things out consistently along his own lines of resignation to agnostic uncertainty — as his father had done before him. Moving further away, therefore, from faith in any comprehensible conception of God, he yet grew closer in conviction of the wisdom and guiding integrity of the compassionate philosophy of Christ.

As his disease caught up with him, R. S. felt increasingly grateful for the fact that death was coming to him with due warning, and gradually. So many times in his active life he had been near sudden death by accident, violence, or acute disease; and always he had thought that rapid and unexpected extinction would be most merciful. But now he was thankful that he had time to compose his spirit, and to spend a last year in affectionate and actually merry association with those dear to him. He set down this feeling in his last sonnet: —

Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.
Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.
How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love had sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.

It is apparent, therefore, that in his last months R. S. achieved a certain degree of philosophical tranquillity and resignation. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that, apart from his purely personal reactions to his own fate and his immediate environment, he was less confused at the time of his death than I have described him at the beginning of this biography. When he gazed beyond the circle of his own work, his family and friends, into the rushing world about him, he was completely bewildered. He had a little the same resentful feeling that he remembered having when, as a boy, he had walked through Normandy and had to jump into the ditch to let one of the recently invented automobiles rattle by — knowing that its passengers would have dinner at the town where he expected to arrive two days later. It was all moving too fast for him. Indeed, he was not sure whether the world that was rushing by was going forward or backward. He wondered whether he had not, perhaps, been born a little too late and remained unable to catch up with his time.

The world to which he had been born had not alone speeded up with that acceleration of which Henry Adams complained, but had actually seemed to change direction. Scientific progress had brought as much sorrow as happiness. With immensely enhanced powers of production, millions were out of work and starving. Not only were ideas of democracy and individual freedom which he had accepted as the gradually evolved goals of centuries of struggle being denied, but entire nations were frantically intent on destroying them. Great racial masses seemed willing to fight and perish, if necessary, for their own enslavement. New so-called ‘ideologies’ were tearing up the foundations of all that men had thought firm and permanently established. Something had cracked in the old Western civilization, and its walls and lofty towers — cemented with the sweat and blood of their forefathers — were tumbling about men’s ears. And the intellectual calamity seemed to be that no one could say whether the turmoil was the result of avoidable stupidity or of the operation of laws of economic and social evolution that were acting on mankind as other laws had acted on the dinosaur and the sabre-toothed tiger.

But in all these things he could never tell, before he died, whether the fault was in him or in the trends he disliked. He didn’t admit this, of course, and remained, to the last, argumentatively arrogant. But I knew that at the time of his death he was as thoroughly bewildered as any thoughtful individual of our time is bound to be.

All of which goes to prove that, as I pointed out in the first chapter, R. S. was really a quite ordinary person about whom it was hardly worth while to write a book.

(The End)

  1. Earlier chapters of the biography have appeared in the January—April issues. — EDITOR