The Present World as Seen in Its Literature

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as seen

in its literature

author of

Barometer Rising, Two Solitudes,

and other novels.

Delivered as the

Founders' Day Address

at the University of New Brunswick


February 18, 1952

It is a great honour, and a, greater pleasure, for me to be with you tonight. It is always good to be back in the Maritimes. It is especially good to revisit Fredericton, for beyond argument this is the most beautiful town in our four provinces. For me, as a professional novelist, it is a unique distinction to have been invited to give the address on the Founders' Day of the University of New Brunswick in its one hundred and fifty-second year. For the University of New Brunswick, apart from its many other distinctions, has been the cradle of good writing in Canada.

My subject tonight - the present world as seen in its literature - is one that I would have avoided if I had been able to think of any other topic on which I could speak with any sort of authority. It is always a tricky business to talk on subjects as general as this. But my own experience has taught me that it is still trickier to talk about things that are definite and beyond debate. I learned that much the first time I ever made a speech in public. Shortly after my first novel was published, a woman's club in Montreal asked me to be their guest. Expecting that they wanted some sort of informal chat about my work, I accepted. But in the next mail a letter came giving the specific topic they wanted me to speak about. It was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Now that, if you wish, is a definite subject. Not even the most cautious critic can deny that Rome declined and fell. So I spent a week compressing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire into fifty minutes, leaving time for an introduction, a joke at the beginning, another joke in the middle, and a peroration at the end. What happened when the address was over told me more about the moral fibre of Canada than any history book I have read. The ladies proved beyond doubt that however weary, cynical and disillusioned the rest of the world may be, Canada is still a self-confident nation with no nonsense in her make-up. After Rome had fallen as hard as I could make her fall; after the dust had settled over the ruins as thick as I could make it settle; the secretary of the club rose to speak. "We have just heard how Rome fell," she said, "and I'm sure we all agree that it was a disgraceful affair and that it served the Romans right. I should now like to propose a motion. I move that the ladies of this club pass a resolution to see to it that no decline and fall happens here."

After that evening I decided that if I ever made a speech again I had better talk about something vague. It would be the Canadian thing to do anyway, for vagueness of utterance seems to be a part of our tradition. In the depths of our unconscious wisdom, we seem to have reached the conclusion that no good can ever come from a clear definition of aims and intentions. France was the clearest-headed nation in the world, and look what happened to her. Mr. Churchill nailed England's colours to the mast and she has been in difficulties ever since. But Canada's greatest statesman managed to survive in office for more than twenty-two years without once uttering a single sentence that his opponents could remember to quote against him. And so, when President Trueman suggested that I speak about some general literary topic tonight, I decided to conform to tradition. Literature deals with symbols, and it is as difficult to pin down a symbol as it ever was to pin MacKenzie King to the wall.

There is another reason - beyond the fact that I happen to be a writer by trade - why a literary subject seems suitable on an occasion like this. As I said a moment ago, the University of New Brunswick is the cradle of Canadian writing. Bliss Carman was the first Canadian poet to win an international reputation. The nature-novels of Charles G. D. Roberts have stood up for two generations, and if they last another fifty years they will have a permanent place in English literature. The novels of Charles G. D. Roberts seemed enchanting to me when I was a boy; the best of them are no less enchanting now. Apart from his obvious talent as a story-teller, Roberts had the gift of magic and possessed a wonderful eye. The forests, streams and lakes of New Brunswick were invested by him with a sort of primordial wonder. To this day I can never see a line of spruce trees against a winter sunset without thinking of Roberts. When there is a silver frost, I remember his wonderful story about the animal's who were helpless on such a day. On cold autumn nights when the moon is bright, I see antlered moose standing on the shores of lonely lakes, just as Roberts taught me to see them. Indeed, it was Roberts who taught us all to see this country as it uniquely is. Long before Tom Thomson painted his first canvas, Roberts was showing us the heart of the ancient wood, the farm in the clearing, the lumber camp and the furtive animals of a northern land. His 'country was the country of New Brunswick and his characters were New Brunswick people. His work, more than that of any other writer, made it possible for Canadians who began writing later to build on a solid foundation. Before creative art can deal with people, it must first deal, with the land. It must make us see, smell and feel it. It must accustom us to its uniqueness. Roberts was the first to show us that Canada is a land of majestic solitudes.

The world, and Canada with it, has moved a long way into history since Charles G. D. Roberts wrote his novels. Never again will this country be so innocent. The world, and Canada with it, has become intricately interwoven; never again will Canadian's feel so isolated or so immune from historical necessity. Within fifty years we have cataracted from a mood of unparalleled optimism to a state of mind not much different from the one that prevailed in Rome when St. Augustine wrote his Confessions. The literature which has recorded 'this transmutation may perhaps have been a great one, but it has not been pretty. It would have horrified an earlier generation, and in fact it has horrified many contemporaries. But whether it has evoked horror or not, no fair-minded person can deny that its mood 'has been faithful to the catastrophic period which produced it.

The literature of doom and despair — its eloquence and sombre beauty has filled our minds and interpreted our emotions from 1914 to the present time. And now, quite suddenly, its mood has been fractured. Any one who writes books today feels as if he were in the unnatural calm which lies in the cone of a typhoon. The hour is midnight and all around him the winds are whirling. He knows they are there, but suddenly the can't hear them, he can't guess what their direction will be when, they strike again. Since the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima; more particularly since the world split into two opposite camps between east and west; the shape of things to come, has been obscured. The artist, like everyone else, feels the imminent presence of tremendous events. But what their nature will be - above all what direction these events will take, - the artist cannot even guess. Not only are signs lacking. Familiar symbols have become inadequate. And as a result, during the past few years the public has turned uneasily from the novel to purely factual, purely journalistic works of non-fiction. When the compass breaks down, when the glass is uncertain, the ship's crew, exaggerates the importance of the necessary little facts which are forgotten when the voyage is exciting and the course is clear. They darn socks, they holystone the decks, polish the brass and repair the rigging. So it is with literature at the present moment. Fiction, as Aristotle said centuries ago, is more important than non-fiction. Its importance depends on the veracity of its symbols, on its capacity to make universally true creations, on its power to use the symbols of its trade to mediate between men and the corrosive force of their undefined emotions.

Since 1945, most of our literature has lost this power.

The fact that it has lost this power - and that it has lost it suddenly - is not so bad a circumstance as it sounds. It means that the moral climate has abruptly changed, and that the artists have not yet accustomed themselves to the change. It may very possibly mean that the moral climate has changed for the better. Writers and artists are peculiar people. They are far less original than they seem to be. They are not the leaders of a society - the father of western literature was Homer, and he was blind and helpless in a primitive society dominated by warriors like Agamemnon and Achilles. Artists never start political movements or religious revivals. They don't change society. They illuminate it. The one unique talent the artist possesses - a talent which automatically renders him unfit for success in most respectable occupations - is what we now call "empathy". The artist feels within the mind's and personalities of people he meets. He becomes - for a time - the characters he creates. When Flaubert, was describing the fatal illness of Madame Bovary, he himself displayed many of the outward symptoms of her disease. Because of this empathetic quality in the artist, he becomes -- generally without knowing it and often without caring - a sort of social barometer. He records - generally without knowing it and often without caring — the atmospheric changes which herald coming storms and coming calms.

When one looks back on the history of creative art, it is unnerving to observe how regularly, how fatally, this phenomenon occurs. Long before the headlines tell their stories of this or that war or revolution, the conditions and mentalities that produce the wars or the, revolution are recorded by the literatures of the nations involved. In the deep calm of the 1890s, the Russian novelist Turgeniev wrote that "evil is coming". If you want to understand the century which followed Turgeniev - our own century - don't go to the speeches of the politicians or the tomes of the economists or the sociologists. These latter have been far too precise; they have attempted to be far too "scientific", to state a truth beyond the truth of the passing moment. The mood and meaning of our century - at least from 1900 to 1945 - has been most faithfully recorded by the great novelists and the great painters. Without compromise, in their own peculiarly indirect way, by the symbols which welled up out of their unconscious, they have, written and painted the record of the most terrifying fifty years in history. Perhaps it was the vagueness, the broken nature of their work, the apparent isolation of their separate world pictures, which made it possible for them to present such a collective version of the truth.For if they had been specific, if they had tried to be as precise and definite as the scientists are, they would have quailed from the meaning of their own insights. They would have fallen back on wishful-thinking. They would have pretended, as the Victorians tried to pretend, that things are other than what they are, and that history can be circumvented if you refuse to think about its meaning.

It is not in the work of any individual novelist or painter - it is the vast body of work produced by many novelists and painters - that the world picture falls into perspective, and that the moral climate of the first half of the twentieth century has been most pitilessly revealed. It has been a climate filled with distrust, doubt, suspicion, frustrated hopes, frustrated heroism and frustrated sacrifice. Above all it has been a climate pregnant with fear. The vey titles of some of the most famous novels and poems speak for themselves: Heart of Darkness, Le Feu, The World's Illusion, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, The Wasteland, The Hollow Men, Gerontion, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Beautiful and Damned, Death in the Afternoon, A Handful of Dust, Darkness at Noon, Lost Horizon, The Sound and the Fury, Look Homeward, Angel, The Naked and the Dead, Lie Down in Darkness and - finally - From Here to Eternity.

Many critics have assailed the painters and writers for picturing modern man as worse than he is, as more ugly and depraved. than he is, as more helpless and wretched and cowardly than he is. But against the unanimity of the artistic evidence, such censure is meaningless. Artists don't choose the nature of their subjects. They, find them. Or, to be even more accurate, the subjects find the artists. The artists of this century have not been stating that all men are bad. They have been stating something more humane but a great deal more terrible. They have been stating that in this period the millions of men of good will were helpless to arrest the drift toward cruelty, superstition, fascism, war, communism and the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the labour camps of the Soviet Union. They have been stating - at least some of the novelists have - that what one generation sows, the next generation must infallibly reap.

The whirlwind we have reaped in this tortured century was, of course, sowed during the ineffably self-satisfied century which preceded it. It was the Victorians, not we, who bred vast slums out of the industrial revolution. It was the Victorians, not we, who involved GrecoChristian civilization inextricably with the civilizations of Africa, the Near East and the Far East. It was the Victorians, not we, who refused to let the left lobes of their brains know what the right lobes were thinking, and thereby produced such confusions and involvements, that there was an eager willingness on the part of the hundreds of millions of confused, desperate people to follow the mass-movements into totalitarianism and war. It was the Victorians, finally, who covered the language of Shakespeare and swift with a mucous of nice-Nellyism against which the writers of this century have reacted with furious violence.

"I was always embarrassed," Hemingway writes in one of his novels, "by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice . . . Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." Elsewhere Hemingway said: "They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet or fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." And still elsewhere he wrote: "If people bring, so much courage to the world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you may be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry."

I have quoted these passages from Hemingway because they seem to me to illustrate more clearly than any other the suicidal mood of the 1930s. Their significance is all the greater when one remembers that in the year-books of American universities during that time, Ernest Hemingway was constantly elected the most popular and important living writer. Twenty years earlier, in a work of profound symbolic meaning, Thomas Mann had set the scene of his novel The Magic Mountain in a sanitorium in the Swiss mountains. The society he wrote of was a sick society, but at least it had gone to a sanitorium in the hope of a cure. In Hemingway's era even hope seemed an illusion. The world would kill the very good and the very brave and the very gentle impartially. And a few years later, in the gas chambers of the concentration camp, this prophecy was fulfilled.

Now, thank God, we can turn from this terrible picture to the moment when the tide turned. We can even pick the exact date of its turning. The day was the 10th of June, 1940, when Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill took over the leadership of the western world. So far as the military situation was concerned, it was a day of disasters. The Nazis had conquered Norway; their armies were then overrunning Belgium and the Low Countries. But on that day the people of England decided to live. On that day the symbols of a decadent, despairing literature faded away before the tremendous symbol of Churchill himself, who embodied all the glory of our past, who recalled the lost courage, and who - by his existence and attitude - embodied the will of western civilization to repudiate the desire for suicide and to affirm the wish to survive. Behind the symbol of Churchill stood another symbol less dramatic, but one which, in the long run, was perhaps even more important. That symbol was the King and his family, who never professed to be clever or brilliant, but who stood for all that was best and healthiest in the millions of anonymous people of good-will whom Churchill rallied out of the darkness. Once again, this change in the moral climate was faithfully recorded by the men of words. Most memorably of all it was recorded by Churchill himself, who, when out of office, is a writer by trade. But most subtly, and perhaps even more significantly, it was recorded by that wonderful woman, Rebecca West. During the last days of the Chamberlain era, Rebecca West began that strange, long, haunting and unique creation that she called Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. The book begins with Miss West lying in a hospital bed before a serious operation. She is reading a poem by Joachim du Bellay and pauses on the line "Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage" ("Happy the man who, like Ulysses, has made a fair voyage") and again on the lines "Et en quelle saison revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, qui m'est une province, et beaucoup d'advantage?" ("And in what season shall I see again the close of my poor home, which to me is a province and so much more?") The book begins with a haunted longing for lost dignity and worth. It proceeds for more than a thousand close-written pages through the towns and provinces of Jugoslavia as Miss West seeks the underlying causes - psychological, historical, social and economic, but above all spiritual which have led civilization to such a state that Hitler and Mussolini are the heads of nations, and that the forces of goodness and decency are led by feeble old men. "I wanted to discover," Miss West writes at the beginning of her book, "the nature of the forces that are going to kill me." As she continued with her work the war broke out, Churchill rose, England rallied, Jugoslavia was invaded and fought back. And what Miss West discovered was not the force that was going to kill her, but the force that was going to save her. Toward the close of her pilgrimage she was able to write:

"Now we in England stood alone. Now we, who had been unchallenged masters of the world, were poor and beset like the South Slavs. The brightness of an exceptional summer was about us, and we believed that this would immediately be blotted out by an eternal night. But the experience was not so disagreeable as might be supposed, for we had lost our desire to die without defending ourselves, and it was that, not danger, which was horrifying. The most terrible death is subject to the same limitations as the most beautiful girl, it can only give what it has, got. But voluntarily to play a part in an act of cruelty, to subscribe to a theory of the universe which supposes a God capable of showering down blessings in return for meaningless bloodshed, that is to initiate a process of degradation which is infinite, because it is imaginary and not confined within the limits of reality. From that hell we were suddenly liberated, by forces which it is hard to name. Perhaps the Germans, by the nastiness of their campaigns, acquainted us beyond all possible doubt with the squalor of this rite (of suicide) in which, we were about to be involved. Perhaps there is a balance in our souls which is hung truly between life and death, and rights itself if it swings over too far in the direction of death. Such an equipoise can be noted in Shakespeare's King Lear, which above all other works of art illuminates the sacrificial myth: he set out to prove that the case for cruelty is unanswerable, because kindness, even when it comes to its fine flower in love, is only a cloak for ravening and treachery, and at the end he cries out that love is the only true jewel in the universe, and if we have not found it yet we must go on running until we do find it. So we go deep into the darkness and recoil to light in the supreme work of our English literature, and that was our course in the supreme crisis of our history. We offered up to death all our achievement, all that was ours down to our physical existence, and over-night we took the offer back. The instrument of our suicidal impetus, Neville Chamberlain, who had seemed as firmly entrenched in our government as sugar in the kidneys of a diabetic patient, all at once was gone."

This moment, rendered visible and emotional by the twin symbols of Winston Churchill and the King, was so tremendous that not even the desperate anxieties of 1940 could obscure it. As the war advanced and fascism was beaten back, a surge of grim but vivid optimism appeared in the writings and pictures. There was nothing facile, nothing self-deceiving about the war paintings of Paul Nash and Henry Moore, but the note of suicide had disappeared. Then come Hiroshima and the split with Russia and everything grew doubtful once more. It was that mood of doubt and uncertainty that I tried to describe a while 'ago when I said that at the present moment most writers feel themselve at the unnatural calm at the cone of a typhoon.. In such a time it is hard to discover powerful new symbols. Our moral atmosphere has changed again and hope has been deferred. Ever since 1945 it has been obvious, that our future is to some extent in the hands of alien people and governments in the east. The post-war art of France has reached an all-time low in pessimism. The United States, which experienced no moment of dramatic resurrection comparable to what occurred in Britain in 1940, has given us since the war a stream of novels which might have been written in the Chamberlain years - novels of doom and suicidal despair like The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity. But there are many signs to indicate that this trend is almost over, the most important being that few intelligent readers have taken these books seriously. Last year the best American novel was as realistic as any of the works of doom, and it was a novel of courage, hope and good humour. The finest work to appear anywhere since the last war - at least in, my opinion - came out of South Africa. Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country is as realistic as anything written in the 1930s. In a way it is more terrible than any of those books. It shrinks from nothing. But it is a novel of moral grandeur. It is a novel in which hatred is enormous, but in which love is even more enormous. It in be it may very possibly be - that in the character of, the negro parson Stephen Kumalo, Alan Paton has produced a symbol which will have; for later writers, a power of attraction greater than that of any hero of Hemingway, Faulkner, or Jean-Paul Sartre. This may happen, but it is too early to tell yet. The mercury, is still wavering in the glass. The compasses are still swinging in wild and contradictory directions.

Before ending, I would like to speak very briefly about the situation in this country. By grace of our own youth, of the Atlantic Ocean, the stand of Great Britain, and our proximity to the United States, together with plenty of food and untapped natural resources, Canada has been uniquely fortunate in the past forty years. She entered this century as narrowly innocent as a puritanical adolescent in the small town of a Maritime Province. By the half century she was almost the most prosperous nation in the world. She too, has undergone prodigious psychological changes, but instead of being ground down into the mud, she has only been splashed with it by passing cars. She has lost her innocence and with its loss the symbols of childhood have lost their power and use. The life of modern Canada can no longer be symbolised by a Mounted Policeman on top of a Rocky Mountain or by a cowboy in a Stetson hat. Nor can the, life and meaning of modern French-Canada any longer be symbolised by the figure of a rural priest and the Dionne Quintuplets. More and more we are becoming a nation of city-dwellers. More and more have we become involved directly and past recall in international affairs.

True to the inevitable pattern, our writers, and painters over the past two decades have recorded, in their own quiet way, this evolution. Now once again they are in search of new frontiers, but this time they are frontiers of the spirit. And the people who are going to discover them are not going to be the old men. They are not likely to be those who are now in middle age. They will certainly be those who are at school and college now. For this young generation is at home in Canada. Neither colonial nor Victorian, it is strongly realistic and is excited by the future of the country.

I predict, therefore, that twenty-five years from now the literature and art of Canada will have developed so far that it will be recognized as an integral part of the literature and art of the English-speaking world. At last our country has lost its childish conception that innocence is the same thing as virtue. It is losing its Victorian terror of the mysteries of sex. It is learning to be frank and to make up its own mind.

We have read lately in American magazines some gloomy reports on the lack of adventure and the docility of the young generation in the United States. Whether such reports are true of the college generation in the United States I don't know. But I do know that they are utterly untrue of the college generation here. This is the best, the clearest-headed, the kindest and the most honest generation Canada has ever had. In many ways, the average Canadian of twenty-one today is more mature than his father and a great deal more so than his grandfather. If the record of other countries is any guide, this generation will create an art and a literature which will be both vital and original. Provincialism for its own sake is as dead as isolationism in politics. The supreme task of civilization is now starkly plain. It is simply this: to unite in a new kind of action the tremendous power achieved by science with the spirit of love as described, by Jesus Christ. The supreme task of the artist will be to discover true, creative symbols which will make manifest that union to men and women all over the world. Statesmanship cannot achieve its ends by closing its eyes to evil. Neither can the artist achieve his ends by closing his eyes to evil. As there is power, so must there also be love. Unless civilization achieves this union, there will be no civilization. Unless art is able to record it, there will be no art.