Robert Louis Stevenson (Chesterton)/Chapter IX

Free texts and images.
Jump to: navigation, search
Chapter Chapter VIII. The Limits of a Craft Robert Louis Stevenson
'Chapter IX. The Philosophy of Gesture'
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter X. The Moral of Stevenson

Something has been said, from time to time, in these pages about the justice or injustice of the alleged reaction against Stevenson. Little or nothing will be said about its final success or failure, and that for at least two reasons. First, that such guesses about the fashions of the future are generally quite wide of the mark, because they are founded on a very obvious fallacy. They always imply that public taste will continue to progress in its present direction; which is, in truth, the only thing we know that it will not do. A thing that wanders away in great winding curves may end anywhere; but to turn each curve into a straight line striking out into the void will be wrong in any case. This is obvious even in the tolerably short history of the modern novel. Victorians had a sort of parlour game of comparing Dickens and Thackeray; but they would have been amazed to hear modern young people declaring that Thackeray is much more sentimental than Dickens. They would have been astounded by the revival of Trollope, accompanied by the comparative neglect of Thackeray. For to the more earnest Victorians of that world, Trollope was another name for triviality. They would have felt as we should feel if we were told that Charles Garvice would outlive John Galsworthy. For a great genius may appear in almost any disguise; even in the disguise of a successful novelist. The second reason for which I wave away from me the prophet's mantle, and decline to decide the question of the future, is that I do not think it very much matters. There are fine writers of the past as well as the present, who are read only by few; and I do not admit that the many know all about them, merely because they never knew them. I do not see why we should so blindly distrust popularity and so blindly trust posterity. But some of the conditions of survival may perhaps be generally considered.

The fame of Stevenson in the future will stand or fall with the strength or weakness of a particular argument. It was perhaps most compactly expressed by a critic who accused him of "externality." What he called the fault of externality I should be inclined to ascribe to the fallacy of internalism. Perhaps it will be recognised better if I call it the fallacy of "psychology." It is the notion that a serious novelist should confine himself to the inside of the human skull. Now Stevenson's fiction is full of pantomime; in the strict sense of animated action or gesture. And it really seems as if the critics, by a sort of pun or perversion of meaning, associated it with a children's pantomime; though Stevenson would have been the last to object even to that. Anyhow, this idea that intellectual fiction should concern the solitary and uncommunicative intellect is a very obvious fallacy indeed. It is sound enough to say that we can see below the surface; but not that we cannot see what is on the surface. Least of all is it sensible to say that we cannot believe in it because it has come to the surface; though it were as enormous as a spouting whale. Indeed the tone rather recalls that of some sceptics who implied that sailors ought not to think they saw the Great Sea Serpent, because it was a quarter of a mile long when they saw it. So we may well urge that psychological things are not less psychological because they come to the surface in pantomime. The argument amounts to saying that a really delicate piece of clockwork only exists when the clock stops. And indeed I suppose these critics would consider the action of a clock, in whirling its hands about, a very offensive piece of foreign gesticulation. It is like saying that a locomotive steam-engine is only a steam-engine when it is standing still; or that a building blowing up with a loud bang offers a final proof that it was not a powder-magazine.

Indeed in this respect the psychological critics are rather backward even in psychology. It generally distresses such people more to be behind the times than to be against the truth; and in this case it seems possible that they are both. The objection to their fallacy of internalism is that it is nonsense to think only of thoughts and not of words or deeds, since words are only spoken thoughts and deeds are only acted words. They are in fact the most dominant words and the most triumphant thoughts; the thoughts that emerge. But, according to "the latest modern psychology" (that infallible and immutable authority), it is even more of a mistake to treat the surface so superficially. Acts are not only the swiftest thoughts; they are even too swift to be called thoughts. They come from something more fundamental than common or conscious thinking. It is exactly our subconsciousness that appears in acts more than in words, or even thoughts. It is precisely our subconsciousness that bites its nails or twirls its moustaches, that kicks its heels or grinds its teeth. According to some, it is even our subconsciousness (that jolly companion) that occasionally cuts our mother's throat or picks our father's pocket. I do not take the latest modern psychology quite so seriously; but what element of truth there is in it is all against the tone of the latest Stevensonian, or Anti-Stevensonian, criticism. The test of fine fiction, by this or any other standard, is not whether it follows out threads of thought in silence; not whether it is subjective rather than objective or avoids any violent issue in events. It is simply whether it is right; whether the psychology is right and whether the act represents it rightly. In psychology, as in any other science, one cannot be more than right. And the most embittered critic will find it very difficult to show that Stevenson was very often wrong. What the embittered critic can show, and what will make him still more embittered, is that Stevenson expressed everything by some dramatic act. And, according to such critics, anything that is dramatic is melodramatic. The boyish brooding and smarting sentimental self-importance of David Balfour during his one quarrel with Alan Breck Stewart are described so delicately and exactly as to be worthy of George Meredith, who was so excellent with boys; they might easily be the broodings of Evan Harrington or Harry Richmond. Only in Stevenson's story they end (alas!) in the crossing of blades and Alan tossing away his sword; and that, of course, is dreadfully melodramatic. One cannot be psychological inside a sword-belt; and cerebral processes must not take place under a three-cornered hat. The interlude of Henry Durie's crippled and almost half-witted happiness, when the shadow of his brother is withdrawn for a season and his child is growing in the sun, is as pathetic and as true as any lucid interval (if such there be) in the suburban depression of the school of Gissing. Only when the fool's paradise is lost, by a random word about the possible perversion of the child, it is not to be denied that Henry Durie falls to the earth like a stone. And the thoughtful critic explains that such a man cannot have had any really internal feelings; because his internal feelings were strong enough to knock him down. The dark, drudging and almost automatic altruism of poor Herrick, amid all his tangle of treasons in The Ebb-Tide, is as sad and true as the most miserable modern could wish it to be. But then Herrick jumps into the sea with a great splash; though he ought to endear himself to the modern critic by not actually doing anything after all, even for the fruitful cult of suicide. The girl Kirstie's "gabble" of recollection and daydream and imaginary lovers' quarrels, as she goes home from church, is quite as true to the actual inner workings of the young sentimental mind as any feminine fine shade in Henry James. But then the critic cannot be expected to forgive her for giving two or three little skips as she walks along the road. No lady in Henry James ever skipped. It is because in each of these cases some outward motion makes memorable the inward mood that these critics feel that it cannot really be so very inward. It is to be noted that they do not commit themselves to a positive negation; they do not affirm that the characters in question would _not_ feel as they are described as feeling; they do not even say that they would not act as they are described as acting; that David would not fight or Durie fall or Kirstie leap upon the road. They simply have a refined and delicate feeling that psychological fiction ought to deal only, or mostly, with unspoken words or uncompleted thoughts. That is a very interesting point of view; and it is just as well to have it clearly stated and understood. If Stevenson had only served as an excuse for expounding this interesting critical thesis, they might so far thank him and even constrain themselves to be reasonably polite to him. Anyhow, that seems to be their principle; and I have paused long enough upon it to show that I do not wish to ignore it. Only I would respectfully submit that their quarrel is not with Stevenson; certainly their quarrel is not merely with Stevenson. It is with Homer and the bending of the bow; it is with Hamlet and the leap into the grave; it is with Francesca dropping the book or Quixote driving at the windmill; it is with Henry putting on his crown or Anthony putting off his helmet; it is with Roland in Roncesvaux, blowing the horn and breaking the sword and holding up his glove to God. It is in all those epic energies which gave to the last story and its sequel the noble title of Songs of Action--Chansons de Geste.

Among the many unreasonable objections to the Stevensonian romance, I admit that there is a reasonable objection that may be advanced here. It may be said that he was guilty of externality in this sense; that he sometimes began with externals, in so far as he saw in some scene or other setting the suggestion or rather the provocation of romance. "Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder," he very truly observed; and he was often moved to commit the murder in a vicarious literary manner. He wished sometimes, he said, to fit every such place with its appropriate legend. Superficially there is sense in this objection; but in a deeper and more sympathetic sense I do not admit that it contradicts what I have said of the deep spring of gesture or the deliberation of craftsmanship. It merely means that there was from the first, in any such work of art, the unity of mood that there always ought to be. It means that he had decided what sort of novel he would write, before he had decided what novel he would write; and this is right and inevitable. The dank garden cannot cry aloud immediately, in so many words, "In this place the sinister tutor with one eye larger than the other buried the old sailor's cutlass with which he had killed the horribly but secretly wicked admiral who was really his brother." No dank garden ever expressed itself with such accuracy when crying aloud to anybody; but it is none the less true that the exact shade of gloom and the exact outline of disorder may have suggested, not merely a vulgar murder, but a murder having certain special qualities of the unnatural or the strange. This does not prove that they were not _deep_ feelings which thus rose up at the sight of the strange landscape and groped to find their appropriate images of doom. It only proves that the origin of the story was of the same sort as the origin of a poem. We can call Stevenson a prose poet, if we like; but we cannot call him a superficial writer, unless all poets are superficial.

I shall have occasion to remark elsewhere that there is one strictly technical sense in which Stevenson's treatment can be called a thin or a flat treatment. It is a sense in which we might say that a certain style in decorative ironwork is light and slender, in which we might say that Whistler's way of laying on monochrome washes was merely flat. It has its defects, even considered as a technical treatment; there is an artistic aversion to filigree; and many have maintained that Whistler's washes were too washy. But it is essential that this criticism should not be confused with the suggestion I have just answered; the suggestion that the spiritual significance of the pattern or the picture is shallow and not deep. That is another matter and has nothing whatever to do with the question of our favourite form; and though Stevenson's favourite form was sometimes picturesque to excess, there was nothing platitudinous or merely sentimental about the moral of the picture. On the contrary, he was very much drawn towards difficult and perplexing moral themes and liked to put puzzles to himself in the possible relations of human souls. Only, as we have seen, he liked to make the human soul come to a conclusion in some fashion and announce its conclusion in some way. Hence all the abrupt signals and bodily departures which the sensitive so much lament; hence the coin hurled through the windowpane at Durrisdeer; the banjo flung into the fire on Midway Island; the knife sticking in the mast or the diamond tossed into the river. In short, Stevenson's stories were often problem stories, in the style of what were called problem plays. But by one crime he disqualified himself for the company of the really realistic and earnest authors of problem plays or problem novels. He had a weakness for solving the problem.

There is in this merit the other side of a fault; and a fault of which he has often been accused. He was called self-conscious; and in his work he was perhaps a little too self-conscious, as compared with some writers whose fundamental and even almost forgotten impulses were allowed to flow forth more freely, and perhaps more naturally. But these things are a matter of degree and balance; and some may hold that it is the opposite type that has now become unbalanced. Walking the world to-day, I am not sure that I do not prefer the self-conscious to the subconscious. Stevenson felt a responsibility in art which was like his vivid and almost morbid sense of responsibility in conduct. His problems of conduct were indeed sometimes a little anarchical; and his ethical decision in them perhaps a little amateurish. Like Ibsen and Bernard Shaw and many men of his time, he had not quite discovered the pressing practical necessity of having a general rule, in the absence of which the world becomes a welter of exceptions. But he was intensely interested in the right moral solution whatever it might be; even if it seemed to involve the inversion of a moral rule. And this sense of social responsibility was thoroughly sincere: even when the special pleading had to be, perhaps, a little too individual to be social. It was natural for a novelist, perhaps, to feel most fiercely and keenly the particular personal case. Anyhow, I think he generally did so; as did Loudon Dodd in The Wrecker, when he balanced opium and Jim. He was certainly vastly intrigued by that sort of problem. Henley called him a Catechist; but he should have said Casuist. He professed to have a defective sympathy with Catholicism; and he was still probably provincial enough to have had a horror of Jesuitry; but as a matter of fact he was more casuistical than any Jesuit. He was much less clear about the original universal dogmas of a catechism, whether it were the Shorter Catechism or the Penny Catechism. But he was much more closely concerned about the special occasion when the general sense of those doctrines seemed challenged by a special necessity. We may say, therefore, that, in life and in literature, he was essentially a conscientious person. And a conscientious person is presumably a conscious person; and sometimes perhaps a self-conscious person. He committed a great many crimes vicariously in his books; and delivered batches of corpses to his publishers in the style required of all writers of sensational romance. But his deaths had the delicacy and fine distinction of murder; and nothing of the vulgar communism of massacre. In the one episode in his stories that might be called a massacre, the butchery of the old crew of The Flying Scud by Wicks and his men, the whole horror of the incident is in its intense individualism. It is in the fact that the men have to be slain one by one; in the fact that the massacre is not a massacre but a series of murders. He went so far, in his correspondence, as to say cheerfully of Henry Durie's bloody trap for his brother that it is "a perfectly cold-blooded murder of which I expect and intend the reader to approve." But even here it will be noted that he intended something, and said so; seeming almost as cold-blooded as the murderer. But at least he did not commit murders without knowing it, in the manner of our more subconscious criminals and maniacs in modern fiction. He was not in sympathy with those more recent heroes who seem to seduce and betray and even stab in a sort of prolonged fit of absence of mind. There had not been established, for him or for his characters, that convenient back-stairs of unconscious mind or automatic motion, by which something that is not ourselves (and makes for unrighteousness) may escape from the cellar into the street. It was perhaps a defect; but in the whole of his life and work there is a complete absence of absence of mind.

And with this matter of responsibility, and the reliance on the will in moral matters, we come to that larger question to be considered in the last chapter. It will be in a sense a summary of what has already been said; and yet it will be necessary to say it somewhat more plainly, and in relation to large matters about which many modern people are rather too confused or too timid to talk plain. For the moment it need only be said that the importance of Stevenson largely consists in his relation with the tendency of his age. That tendency was towards a certain mysticism of materialism, of which the most dogmatic expression is what is called monism; but which can be more lightly expressed in a hundred forms, as that all life is one, or that everything is heredity and environment, or that the impersonal is higher than the personal, or that men live by the herd instinct or the soul of the hive. Our fathers called the general atmosphere fatalism; but it has now any number of more idealistic names. Stevenson felt all this, without exactly defining it; he felt it in the realism of nineteenth-century literature, in the pessimism of contemporary poetry, in the timidity of hygienic precaution, in the smugness of middle-class uniformity. And while he was entirely of that time and society, while he read all the realists, knew all the artists, doubted with the doubters and even denied with the deniers, he had that within him which could not but break out in a sort of passionate protest for more personal and poetical things. He flung out his arms with a wide and blind gesture, as one who would find wings at the moment when the world sank beneath him.