The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  There is a great deal to examine in the paragraphs quoted above, but two words in their context illustrate perfectly the unbridgeable abyss between Hardy’s question and Mr. Eliot’s answer. One is, of course, the word diabolic. The other is edifying. That struck and held my eye in a maze, for a moment. With no disrespect I hope to conventional piety, may I venture that in the regions of art, as of religion, edification is not the highest form of intellectual or spiritual experience. It is a happy truth that Hardy’s novels are really not edifying. The mental and emotional states roused and maintained in the reader of The Mayor of Casterbridge or The Return of the Native are considerably richer, invoked out of deeper sources in the whole human consciousness, more substantially nourishing, than this lukewarm word can express. A novel by Thomas Hardy can be a chastening experience, an appalling one, there is great and sober pleasure to be got out of those novels, the mind can be disturbed and the heart made extremely uneasy, but the complacency of edification is absent, as it is apt to be from any true tragedy.

  Mr. Eliot includes Lawrence and Joyce in his list of literary men of “diabolic” tendencies. Deploring Lawrence’s “untrained” mind, he adds: “A trained mind like that of Mr. Joyce is always aware of what master it is serving. . . .”

  Untrained minds have always been a nuisance to the military police of orthodoxy. God-intoxicated mystics and untidy saints with only a white blaze of divine love where their minds should have been, are perpetually creating almost as much disorder within the law as outside it. To have a trained mind is no guarantee at all that the possessor is going to walk infallibly in the path of virtue, though he hardly fails in the letter of the law. St. Joan of Arc and St. Francis in their own ways have had something to say about that. The combination of a trained mind and incorruptible virtue is ideal, and therefore rare: St. Thomas More is the first name that occurs to me as example. Hardy’s mind, which had rejected the conclusions though not the ethical discipline of organized religion (and he knew that its ethical system in essentials is older than Christianity), was not altogether an untrained one, and like all true Dissenters, he knew the master he was serving: his conscience. He had the mathematical certainties of music and architecture, and the daily, hourly training of a serious artist laboring at his problems over a period of more than half a century. That he was unhampered by ideas is therefore highly improbable. He wrote a few fine poems among a large number of poor ones. He wrote fifteen novels, of which a round half-dozen are well the equal of any novel in the English language; even if this is not to say he is the equal of Flaubert or of Dostoievsky. His notebooks testify to a constant preoccupation with ideas, not all of them his own, naturally, for he inherited them from a very respectable race of thinkers, sound in heterodoxy.

  He had got out of the very air of the nineteenth century something from Lucian, something from Leonardo, something from Erasmus, from Montaigne, from Voltaire, from the Encyclopaedists, and there were some powerful nineteenth century Inquirers, too, of whom we need only mention Darwin, perhaps. Scientific experiment leads first to skepticism; but we have seen in our time, how, pursued to the verge of the infinite, it sometimes leads back again to a form of mysticism. There is at the heart of the universe a riddle no man can solve, and in the end, God may be the answer. But this is fetching up at a great distance still from orthodoxy, and still must be suspect in that quarter. Grant that the idea of God is the most splendid single act of the creative human imagination, and that all his multiple faces and attributes correspond to some need and satisfy some deep desire in mankind; still, for the Inquirers, it is impossible not to conclude that this mystical concept has been harnessed rudely to machinery of the most mundane sort, and has been made to serve the ends of an organization which, ruling under divine guidance, has ruled very little better, and in some respects, worse, than certain rather mediocre but frankly manmade systems of government. And it has often lent its support to the worst evils in secular government, fighting consistently on the side of the heavy artillery. And it has seemed at times not to know the difference between Good and Evil, but to get them hopelessly confused with legalistic right and wrong; justifying the most cynical expedients of worldly government by a high morality; and committing the most savage crimes against human life for the love of God. When you consider the political career of the church in the light of its professed origins and purposes, perhaps Original Sin is the answer. But Hardy preferred to remove the argument simply to another ground. As to himself, in his personal life, he had a Franciscan tenderness in regard to children, animals, laborers, the poor, the mad, the insulted and injured. He suffered horror and indignation at human injustice, more especially at the kind committed by entrenched authority and power upon the helpless. In middle age he remembered and recorded an early shock he received on hearing that, in his neighborhood, a young boy, a farm laborer, was found dead of sheer starvation in the fruitful field he had worked to cultivate. When he was planning The Dynasts, he wrote in his notebook: “The human race is to be shown as one great net-work or tissue which quivers in every part when one point is shaken, like a spider’s web if touched.” For Hardy, the death of that boy was a blow that set the whole great web trembling; and all mankind received a lasting wound. Here was a human fate for which human acts were responsible, and it would not serve Hardy at all to put the blame on Original Sin, or the inscrutable decrees of Divine Providence, or any other of the manifold devices for not letting oneself be too uncomfortable at the spectacle of merely human suffering. He was painfully uncomfortable all his life, and his discomfort was not for himself—he was an extraordinarily selfless sort of man—but the pervasiveness of what he considered senseless and unnecessary human misery. Out of the strange simplicity of his own unworldliness he could write at the age of 78: “As to pessimism, my motto is, first correctly diagnose the complaint—in this case human ills—and ascertain the cause: then set about finding a remedy if one exists. The motto or practise of the optimists is: Blind the eyes to the real malady, and use empirical panaceas to suppress the symptoms.” Reasonableness: the use of the human intelligence directed toward the best human solution of human ills; such, if you please, was the unedifying proposal of this diabolic soul.

  He himself in his few remarks on public and practical affairs had always been very reasonable. War, he believed, was an abomination, but it recurred again and again, apparently an incurable ill. He had no theories to advance, but wished merely that those who made wars would admit the real motives; aside from the waste and destruction, which he viewed with purely humane feelings, he objected to the immoralities of statecraft and religion in the matter. He was opposed to capital punishment on the simple grounds that no man has the right to take away the life of another. But he believed it acted as a material deterrent to crime, and if the judges would admit that it was social expediency, with no foundation in true morality, that was another matter. On the Irish question he was acute and explicit in expressing his view in this direction. “Though he did not enter it here [in his notebook] Hardy. . . said of Home Rule that it was a staring dilemma, of which good policy and good philanthropy were the huge horns. Policy for England required that it should not be granted; humanity to Ireland that it should. Neither Liberals nor Conservatives would honestly own up to this opposition between two moralities, but speciously insisted that humanity and policy were both on one side—of course their own.” At another time he complained that most of the philosophers began on the theory that the earth had been designed as a comfortable place for man. He could no more accept this theory than he could the theological notion that the world was a testing ground for the soul of man in preparation for eternity, and that his sufferings were part of a “divine” plan, or indeed, so far as the personal fate of mankind was concerned, of any plan at all. He did believe with a great deal of common sense that man could make the earth a more endurable place for himself if he would, but he also realized that human nature is not grounded in common sense, that there is a deep place in it
where the mind does not go, where the blind monsters sleep and wake, war among themselves, and feed upon death.

  He did believe that there is “a power that rules the world,” though he did not name it, nor could he accept the names that had been given it, or any explanation of its motives. He could only watch its operations, and to me it seems he concluded that both malevolence and benevolence originated in the mind of man, and the warring forces were within him alone; such plan as existed in regard to him he had created for himself, his Good and his Evil were alike the mysterious inventions of his own mind; and why this was so, Hardy could not pretend to say. He knew there was an element in human nature not subject to mathematical equation or the water-tight theories of dogma, and this intransigent, measureless force, divided against itself, in conflict alike with its own system of laws and the unknown laws of the universe, was the real theme of Hardy’s novels; a genuinely tragic theme in the grand manner, of sufficient weight and shapelessness to try the powers of any artist. Generally so reluctant to admit any influence, Hardy admits to a study of the Greek dramatists, and with his curious sense of proportion, he decided that the Wessex countryside was also the dwelling place of the spirit of tragedy; that the histories of certain obscure persons in that limited locality bore a strong family resemblance to those of the great, the ancient, and the legendary. Mr. Eliot finds Hardy’s beloved Wessex a “stage setting,” such as the Anglo-Saxon heart loves, and Hardy’s Wessex farmers “period peasants pleasing to the metropolitan imagination.” Hardy was Anglo-Saxon and Norman; that landscape was in his blood. Those period peasants were people he had known all his life, and I think that in this passage Mr. Eliot simply speaks as a man of the town, like those young rectors who need to be reminded of the individual dignity and importance of the country people. Further, taking all the Hardy characters in a lump, he finds in them only blind animal emotionalism, and remarks: “. . . strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men; those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict there is no meaning.” True in part: and to disagree in detail would lead to an endless discussion of what exactly constitutes interest in the work of a writer; what gives importance to his characters, their intrinsic value as human beings, or the value their creator is able to give them by his own imaginative view of them.

  Hardy seems almost to agree with Mr. Eliot for once: “The best tragedy—highest tragedy in short—is that of the WORTHY encompassed by the INEVITABLE. The tragedies of immoral and worthless people are not of the best.” My own judgment is that Hardy’s characters are in every way superior to those of Mr. Eliot, and for precisely the reason the two writers are agreed upon. Hardy’s people suffer the tragedy of being, Mr. Eliot’s of not-being. The strange creatures inhabiting the wasteland of Mr. Eliot’s particular scene are for the most part immoral and worthless, the apeneck Sweeneys, the Grishkins, and all. . . . They have for us precisely the fascination the poet has endowed them with, and they also have great significance: they are the sinister chorus of the poet’s own tragedy, they represent the sum of the poet’s vision of human beings without God and without faith, a world of horror surrounding this soul thirsting for faith in God. E. M. Forster has remarked that The Waste Land is a poem of real horror, the tragedy of the rains that came too late—or perhaps, never came at all. For how else can one explain the self-absorbed despair of Eliot’s point of view, even in religion? That uncontrolled emotion of loathing for his fellow pilgrims in this mortal life? Was there not one soul worth tender treatment, not one good man interesting enough to the poet to inhabit his tragic scene? It is a curious paradox. Hardy feels no contempt for his characters at all; he writes of them as objectively as if they existed by themselves, they are never the background, the chorus, for the drama of his own experience. Beside Eliot’s wasteland, with its inhuman beings, Hardy’s Wessex seems an airy, familiar place, his characters at least have living blood in them, and though Mr. Eliot complains that Hardy was not interested in the minds of men, still their headpieces are not deliberately stuffed with straw by their creator.

  Hardy’s characters are full of moral conflicts and of decisions arrived at by mental processes, certainly. Jude, Gabriel Oak, Clym Yeobright, above all, Henchard, are men who have decisions to make, and if they do not make them entirely on the plane of reason, it is because Hardy was interested most in that hairline dividing the rational from the instinctive, the opposition, we might call it, between nature, and second nature; that is, between instinct and the habits of thought fixed upon the individual by his education and his environment. Such characters of his as are led by their emotions come to tragedy; he seems to say that following the emotions blindly leads to disaster. Romantic miscalculation of the possibilities of life, of love, of the situation; of refusing to reason their way out of their predicament; these are the causes of disaster in Hardy’s novels. Angel Clare is a man of the highest principles, trained in belief, religion, observance of moral law. His failure to understand the real nature of Christianity makes a monster of him at the great crisis of his life. The Mayor of Casterbridge spends the balance of his life in atonement and reparation for a brutal wrong committed in drunkenness and anger; his past overtakes and destroys him. Hardy had an observing eye, a remembering mind; he did not need the Greeks to teach him that the Furies do arrive punctually, and that neither act, nor will, nor intention will serve to deflect a man’s destiny from him, once he has taken the step which decides it.

  A word about that style which Mr. Eliot condemns as touching “sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good.” Hardy has often been called by critics who love him, the good simple man of no ideas, the careless workman of genius who never learned to write, who cared nothing for the way of saying a thing.

  His own testimony is that he cared a great deal for what he said: “My art is to intensify the expression of things, as is done by Crivelli, Bellini, etc., so that the heart and inner meaning is made vividly visible.” Again: “The Realities to be the true realities of life, hitherto called abstractions. The old material realities to be placed behind the former, as shadowy accessories.” His notebooks are dry, reluctant, unmethodical; he seems to have spent his time and energies in actual labor at his task rather than theorizing about it, but he remarks once: “Looking around on a well-selected shelf of fiction, how few stories of any length does one recognize as well told from beginning to end! The first half of this story, the last half of that, the middle of another. . . the modern art of narration is yet in its infancy.” He made few notes on technical procedure, but one or two are valuable as a clue to his directions: “A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling. We tale tellers are all Ancient Mariners, and none of us is warranted in stopping Wedding Guests. . . unless he has something more unusual to relate than the ordinary experiences of every average man and woman.” Again: “The whole secret of fiction and drama—in the constructional part—lies in the adjustment of things unusual to things eternal and universal. The writer who knows exactly how exceptional, and how non-exceptional, his events should be made, possesses the key to the art.”

  So much for theory. Not much about the importance of style, the care for the word, the just and perfect construction of a paragraph. But Hardy was not a careless writer. The difference between his first and last editions proves this, in matters of style aside from his painful reconstruction of his manuscripts mutilated for serial publication. He wrote and wrote again, and he never found it easy. He lacked elegance, he never learned the trick of the whip-lash phrase, the complicated lariat twirling of the professed stylists. His prose lumbers along, it jogs, it creaks, it hesitates, it is as dull as certain long passages in the Tolstoy of War and Peace, for example. That celebrated first scene on Egdon Heath, in The Return of the Native. Who does not remember it? And in actual rereading, what could be dulle
r? What could be more labored than his introduction of the widow Yeobright at the heath fire among the dancers, or more unconvincing than the fears of the timid boy that the assembly are literally raising the Devil? Except for this in my memory of that episode, as in dozens of others in many of Hardy’s novels, I have seen it, I was there. When I read it, it almost disappears from view, and afterward comes back, phraseless, living in its somber clearness, as Hardy meant it to do, I feel certain. This to my view is the chief quality of good prose as distinguished from poetry. By his own testimony, he limited his territory by choice, set boundaries to his material, focused his point of view like a burning glass down on a definite aspect of things. He practiced a stringent discipline, severely excised and eliminated all that seemed to him not useful or appropriate to his plan. In the end his work was the sum of his experience, he arrived at his particular true testimony; along the way, sometimes, many times, he wrote sublimely.


  E. M. Forster

  Two Cheers for Democracy, by E. M. Forster.

  New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951.

  DATES memorable to me escape my mind, so I write them down on bits of paper. Bits of paper escape me, too; they love to hide themselves at the bottoms of large baskets of other papers marked “Miscellany.” But E. M. Forster’s volume of essays, called Abinger Harvest, until now my favorite book of his except A Passage to India, is never far from my reach, so by turning to a certain page in it, I am able to name exactly the time, the first and last time, that I ever saw Mr. Forster.

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