All I Survey/Essay II

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Essay I All I Survey
Essay II
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay III

Essay II: On the Standardization of Stevenson

THIS generation, which is charged with being frivolous, often strikes me as being much too serious. And its culture, which seems in one aspect to verge on anarchy, retains in another aspect a queer weakness for authority. I call it a weakness, because it is not so much an appeal to authority as to authorities. In every scientific or sociological discussion the fact has long been flagrant and farcical. If I mention a piece of elementary common sense, as that, when I find a tooth in Tooting, I am not justified in calling it The Tooting Man, or saying I have "reconstructed" him, I shall certainly get no answer except the stern retort that The Tooting Man was reconstructed by no less a person than Dr. Pidge. If I say (exercising my poor human reason) that to explain Mind as a form of Matter is simply meaningless, like explaining eyes in terms of spectacles, I shall be duly informed that I must give up my poor human reason and accept such mysteries on the authority of Professor Snorter, an authority whose authority is perhaps of greater authority than even all the other authorities. But, while we had grown used to this old joke in the fields of science and philosophy, I cannot but grieve to see it appearing here and there in the milder but more flowery fields of literature and artistic criticism. Doubtless there was a period, in the more remote past, when there was too much weight given in literary criticism to authority and authorities. But one or two recent critics seem to have revived this fault, with a change that makes it even more faulty. If the old critic appealed to writers who were old and forgotten, the new critic thinks it enough to appeal to writers who are new and neglected. But I would just as soon be referred to an antiquity known only to the learned as to a novelty known only to the "cultured." I would rather accept the authority of Aristotle, even at a time when he is known to be unpopular with muddle-headed people, than accept the authority of Mr. Nibbsky, who would be equally unpopular, but is not even known.

I have even found a savour of this spirit in the case of critics better known than Mr. Nibbsky, and better worth knowing. There was a comparatively slight and innocent instance of it in a criticism by Mr. James Agate on a book by Mr. Sidney Dark, writers who have both added to my enjoyment in various ways at various times. The book in question was about Stevenson, who has added to my enjoyment even more. But, as I have only read Mr. Agate's criticism and not Mr. Dark's book, I will not claim to judge in a general way between them. Only it seems funny to me that the critic should so solemnly make it a condemnation, in itself, of Mr. Dark's book on Stevenson, that it was not piously and reverently founded on Mr. Swinnerton's book on Stevenson. For the critic, apparently, Mr. Swinnerton is the one and only authority on Stevenson, and his sacred name must be invoked, like that of a Muse or a god of inspiration, at the beginning of any literary exercise on the subject. This strikes me as carrying the idolatry of Authority extravagantly far. Mr. Swinnerton is an excellent writer, and doubtless the book in question was an excellent book. But I would still meekly suggest that a man writing on Stevenson should be judged by his appreciation of Stevenson, and not by his appreciation of Swinnerton. But the critic talks with horrible solemnity about "The Pre-Swinnerton" period of Stevensonian criticism. Which really seems to be making too much even of Stevenson, let alone Swinnerton. Men may well be a little mystical in speaking of what is Pre-Adamite, or even Pre-Raphaelite; but I hardly think any of our little text-books of taste and letters will rank with the Renaissance, let alone the Creation.

Of the making of books on Stevenson there is no end; as poor Cranmer observed, "This hath offended; this unworthy hand." But I really doubt whether it was Mr. Dark's moral duty to read all of them before daring to write one of his own. I should as soon think it impertinent of a painter to paint a pine-tree before he had studied all the pine-trees in all the pictures in the world. After all, what we want is direct and individual impressions of primary objects, whether poets or pine-trees, and not an endless succession of critics learning from critics how to criticize. With some parts of Mr. Agate's criticism, whether it be of the book or of the subject of the book, I entirely agree. I should never, for instance, think of resting my real admiration for Stevenson on the slight, and indeed rather thin, essays on the relation of the sexes called _Virginibus Puerisque._ I take them to have been examples of those early exercises in elegant prose, with a preference of manner to matter, to which Stevenson himself humorously confessed in later life. They belong to what is called the "sedulous ape" period, which the yet more sedulous apes of the Press have quoted and re-quoted sedulously ever since. But Stevenson was not a sedulous ape, any more than Dickens was Boz or Byron was the author of the remarkable poem called "A Tear."

After all, Stevenson died at about the time of life when Dickens had only just written _David Copperfield,_ and had not yet attempted so new a departure as _Hard Times_ or _Great Expectations;_ at an age when any number of great men had still their fullest and most mature work to do. And when he died he was already writing what is quite obviously a much fuller and more mature work, and in many ways quite a new departure. The fragments of _Weir of Hermiston_ are like the fragments of a colossal god lying broken in the desert, compared with many of the slender ivory statuettes that he had carved before. But it is an error even to associate him, in his previous work, with things like ivory statuettes. Mr. Huish with his little vitriol-bottle, in _The Ebb-Tide,_ would make a very unsuitable ivory statuette. The critic mentioned above falls into this fallacy, I think, when he says that Stevenson "turned all to favour and to prettiness." It is not altogether a fortunate quotation, for it is taken from a scene of grisly tragedy; where the Queen utters it, her voice breaking upon the phrase, when Ophelia wanders half-witted between her lover's murder of her father and her own murder of herself. Many of Stevenson's trifles are quite equally tragic. Many of his pretty phrases accentuate ugly situations. Many of them are not pretty at all. I cannot imagine that any critic rushes to the dreary and bedraggled leavings of _The Ebb-Tide_ with a mere childish desire to see the pretty pictures; or that even Mr. Agate would read the account, in _Weir of Hermiston,_ of how the oaf, with his neck swathed in flannel, was "hunted gallows-wards with jeers," and have merely the sentiments of the infant who kicks his legs and cries: "Oh, pretty, pretty!" These passages strike me as revealing rather too brutal a streak in the writer, due, I think, to the Calvinist pessimism of his original background.

What Stevenson had, and what Stevenson's critics often have not and mistake for mere finesse, was a certain sharpness of focus. He did not deal merely with pretty figures, whether they were figures of speech or figures of fiction. On the contrary, he dealt oftener with ugly figures, and certainly enjoyed the ugly figures most. But all the figures are figures, and not merely presences or influences. Mr. Huish is a deformity, but he is a definite form. This may not be the highest artistic quality, but it is not turning everything to prettiness. It is turning everything to beauty, even to the terrible beauty that is made out of a harmony of ugly things. And that is surely not very far off from the primary purpose of art.