Fifty and more years ago, when I was a downy-cheeked undergraduate, certain names always turned up in essays or critical articles which showed the writer's gravity, that the discussion was being conducted on the highest level. The usual number was four, and they came from this list: Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Conrad, Mann, Kafka, James. They were regarded as high priests of Art, which was the standard bearer of the cause of the Humanities, and their invocation signaled that the writer was no trifler. Only recently, in the course of writing these essays, have I realized that my own conception of literature was shaped by that high seriousness. But what exactly am I talking about?
When it began I do not know, but both Henry James and Joseph Conrad were apostles by the mid-1890s. In America it began to appear among serious critics in the 1930s, but it really spread after the war when the New Criticism movement became dogma in English departments across the land. The New Criticism was a method of understanding literature (embodied in a book, Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Austin Warren, 1938) that paid close attention to the text, to the words and their denotations and connotations, to their tone, to their emotional implications, and so on. It ignored, so far as possible, historical or biographical information. What it replaced was a moribund system which my older readers may recall, of meaningless sentimental gushing over "pretty" verses, or deadly biographical readings: Keats wrote the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" because he was dying of tuberculosis and missed Fanny Brawne.
The methods introduced by the New Criticism were exciting, especially compared with the old regime; they made poetry, for instance, seem vital, and they swept away its sissy associations. To those of us affected by it (not everyone was) it was exhilarating to see how close analysis of a seemingly simple poem could reveal depths of meaning and feeling. You can see how this would reinforce the ideal of high Art, of which the New Critics were advocates. Reading, whatever its pleasures, was an endeavor of great seriousness, and from it we learned lessons of life. I do not mean that the critics or our teachers preached or even suggested that we draw such lessons; they were inherent in the act. Conrad's protagonists are not always heroic, but the books about them are. For instance, Jim (in Lord Jim) commits a cowardly act which dogs him throughout the book, but we're never exactly sure of how he sees it. In fact, as we are presented with different views of the affair, our own view changes and develops. When he regains his self-respect in Patusan, we realize (as Stein, who sent him there, recognized) that Jim's self-conception is not merely heroic but romantic, so his death is appropriately a dramatic act of expiation. Here is what Marlow, the narrator, says of him at the end:
But we can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied -- quite, how I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us -- and have I not stood up once, like an evoked ghost, to answer for his eternal constancy? Was I so very wrong after all? Now he is no more, there are days when the reality of his existence comes to me with an immense, with an overwhelming force; and yet upon my honour there are moments, too, when he passes from my eyes like a disembodied spirit astray amongst the passions of this earth, ready to surrender himself faithfully to the claim of his own world of shades. Who knows? He is gone, inscrutable at heart. . . .
Doesn't such prose make life seem heroic, or at least terribly serious? What reading like this did was not just to make me switch from a History major to English, but it strengthened what must already have been my bent -- it made me an idealist. I was not alone. That kind of literature and the reverential approach to it appealed to budding intellectuals who, instead of business careers, went on to grad school and teaching, or tried to be writers themselves.
The evidence that Conrad believed in an exalted idea of art shows in the preface to his third novel (and the first good one) The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897).
And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.
This is a man who takes his writing seriously and expects his readers to take it seriously, too. It isn't mere entertainment, it's about Truth, with a capital T. Of course, he would not have been read at all if his work wasn't entertaining, and at this point we should look at his great novella Heart of Darkness (1902) to see how he creates a work of art that is both entertaining and inspiring.
Marlow, who also narrates Lord Jim and Youth, tells the story to four men who share "the bond of the sea" on board a yacht waiting in the Thames for the turning of the tide. He prefaces his narrative by the ominous remark, "And this also has been one of the dark places on the earth." By "dark" he means uncivilized, and he goes on to speak of the Roman conquest of Britain as "robbery with violence," but:
. . . what redeems it is the idea only, an idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
There we have the whole theme of Marlow's experience as he tells the story of his trip, as captain of a steamer, up the Congo River to his fateful meeting with the company agent, Kurtz. In just a few pages, before the trip even begins, Marlow has laid out the main lines of his narrative, but what is most important, he has made the reader feel that the story is momentous and ominous, charged with brooding feeling. You see how the reader is drawn in, how his interest is aroused, how he is made to feel that the theme and its working out is of the highest importance.
I won't analyze the whole story. The point is that Kurtz, who started out as an apostle of civilization and progress (in his case a "sentimental pretense"), gave in to the darkness, collaborated with the natives in various abominations, and in a final revelation before his death, said "The horror! The horror!" Marlow says:
He was a remarkable man. After all, this was an expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth. . . . It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory!
Then there is a final great scene where Marlow goes to see Kurtz's fiancee, and while she carries on, full of illusions, Marlow keeps seeing and hearing the last scenes of Kurtz:
"Repeat them," [his last words] she murmured in a heart-broken tone. "I want -- I want-something-something-to-live with." I was on the point of crying at her, "Don't you hear them?" The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. -- "The horror! The horror!" "His last word -- to live with," she insisted. "Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!" I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. "The last word he pronounced was -- your name.". . . It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark -- too dark altogether. . . .
The last sentence of the story:
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost end of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky -- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
What a final note: the reader feels that the tale has been an immensely significant experience, more than a moment of truth. Is it any wonder that stories like this make quotidian existence seem very small beer indeed?
As befits a man who could write like that, Joseph Conrad (1857-1926) had an extraordinary career. Born and raised in Poland, at the age of 20 he signed on a British freighter bound for Constantinople with a cargo of coal, thus beginning his 16-year career as a seaman and eventually a master mariner. About a dozen years later he began writing a novel, and when it was published in 1895, he finally gave up seafaring. Amazingly, he wrote in English. His first two novels are not very good, but from 1897 to 1903 he published what I think are his finest works: The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Youth, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Typhoon. Other notable works are Nostromo (1904), Victory (1915), The Shadow Line (1917) and The Rover (1923). Two novels about revolutionaries -- The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911) -- are of some interest, the first for its persistent ironic tone and portrait of Mrs. Verloc, wife of the would-be revolutionary, the second for Conrad's conception of European revolutionaries. It must be said that while his ideas are not as absurd as those of Henry James (in Princess Cassimassima), they are not very realistic. Recommended stories are "An Outpost of Progress," "The End of the Tether," and "The Secret Sharer."
But what of the subject with which I began, the question of high Art? As a creative phenomenon it lasted from the 1890s into the 1920s, and as a critical conception it was still the reigning orthodoxy as late as the early 1960s, (when I was teaching), but it must have been swept away in the general wave of destruction we know as "the 1960s." I see no trace of it now, but of course there is no literature and no criticism of the sort we associate with the heyday of that practice -- Leavis, Tate, Wilson, Winters, et al. It seems strange that literature should reach an apogee of self-consciousness and then quickly dwindle to nothing, but after all, literature is not separate from its culture. Perhaps when an activity, like literature, becomes fully self-conscious it has reached the end of its present incarnation and then must descend into decadence and nullity so long as destructive social forces remain dominant, arising in new forms only when society itself is reborn.
Think for a moment of writers before the advent of high Art -- did Dickens, for example, think about his writing in that way? Or Thackeray? Or Fielding? The great artists of the culture's noontide may be self-conscious about technique, but that is quite a different matter from thinking consciously about one's dedication to a sacred task. I cannot say why, and of course my observations may be quite wrong, but it seems to me that when art is seen in almost a religious light, and when the artist becomes self-consciously an instrument of Truth, it's a sign that the lights are about to be dimmed. *
"I don't pass the buck, nor do I alibi out of any decision I make." --Harry S. Truman