The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Mr. Forster sees so clearly the damage that Olympic Games, or any other form of commercialized, politicalized sport, does to everybody concerned I cannot help but hope that he sees through all those Cultural Fronts by now, too. We were nearly all of us taken in at least once. So it was one crowded, dusty evening, June 21, 1935, in Paris, that Mr. Forster appeared before a meeting of the International Congress of Writers. You can read about it in Abinger Harvest. I distrusted the whole thing for good reasons and attended only on the one evening when Mr. Forster was to speak. At that time, the Communists were busy dividing the whole world into two kinds of people: Fascist and Communist. They said you could tell Fascists by their abhorrence of culture, their racial prejudices, and their general inhumanity. This was true. But they said also that Communists were animated solely by a love of culture and the general good of their fellow man. Alas, this was not true.

  But for great numbers of well-disposed persons, especially in France, England, and some of the Americas, it was dear, familiar talk and we fell for it like a ton of scrap iron. When I say, then, that the evening Mr. Forster spoke in Paris was dusty and crowded, it was literally true: but it also is a way of saying that Communists in numbers running a show anywhere always gave me this sense of suffocation; and heaven knows they were there, with their usual solidarity of effrontery, efficiency and dullness, all over the place making muddlement, as ubiquitous and inescapable as a plague of June bugs in Texas.

  Yet there were on the program as window-dressing a convincing number of artists not Communists, others just political geldings by Communist standards, and a few honest but uncommitted sympathizers. Among these last I suppose they counted Mr. Forster, and he did manage to get in a kind word for communism on the ground that its intentions were good; a high compliment, all considered. He also defended a mediocre book in the defense of free speech and the right to publish; restated his humane, liberal political views, and predicted that he and all his kind, including Aldous Huxley, should expect to be swept away by the next war.

  I heard nothing of this at the time. I had to wait and read it in Abinger Harvest. I think it was just after André Malraux—then as dogmatic in communism as he is now in some other faith—had leaped to the microphone barking like a fox to halt the applause for Julien Benda’s speech, that a little slender man with a large forehead and a shy chin rose, was introduced and began to read his paper carefully prepared for this occasion. He paid no attention to the microphone, but wove back and forth, and from side to side, gently, and every time his face passed the mouthpiece I caught a high-voiced syllable or two, never a whole word, only a thin recurring sound like the wind down a chimney as Mr. Forster’s pleasant good countenance advanced and retreated and returned. Then, surprisingly, once he came to a moment’s pause before the instrument and there sounded into the hall clearly but wistfully a complete sentence: “I DO believe in liberty!”

  The applause at the end was barely polite, but it covered the antics of that part of the audience near me; a whole pantomime of malignant ridicule, meaning that Mr. Forster and all his kind were already as extinct as the dodo. It was a discouraging moment.

  Well, sixteen unbelievably long, painful years have passed, and it is very reassuring to observe that, far from having been swept away, Mr. Forster has been thriving in an admirable style—that is to say, his own style, spare, unportentous but serious, saying his say on any subject he chooses, as good a say as any we are likely to have for a long time; fearless but not aggressive; candid without cruelty; and with that beautiful, purely secular common sense which can hardly be distinguished in its more inspired moments from a saintly idealism.

  Indeed, Mr. Forster is an artist who lives in that constant state of grace which comes of knowing who he is, where he lives, what he feels and thinks about his world. Virginia Woolf once wrote: “One advantage of having a settled code of morals is that you know exactly what to laugh at.” She knew, and so does Mr. Forster. He pokes fun at things in themselves fatally without humor, things oppressive and fatal to human happiness: megalomania, solemn-godliness, pretentiousness, self-love, the meddlesome impulse which leads to the invasion and destruction of human rights. He disclaims a belief in Belief, meaning one can only suppose the kind of dogmatism promoted by meddlesomeness and the rest; come right down to it, I hardly know a writer with more beliefs than Mr. Forster; and all on the side of the angels.

  Two Cheers for Democracy, a collection of his short writings on a tremendous range of subjects, is his first book since Abinger Harvest. It is an extension and enlargement of his thought, a record of the life and feelings of an artist who has been in himself an example of all he has defended from the first: the arts as a civilizing force, civilization itself as the true right aim of the human spirit, no matter what its failures may have been, above all, his unalterable belief in the first importance of the individual relationships between human beings founded on the reality of love—not in the mass, not between nations, nonsense!—but between one person and another. This is of course much more difficult than loving just everybody and everything, for each one must really do something about it, and show his faith in works. He manages to raise two mild cheers for poor old misprized, blasphemed, abused Democracy, who took an awful thrashing lately, but may recover; and he hopes to be able honestly some day to give three. He has long since earned his three cheers, and a tiger.

  Virginia Woolf

  The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, by Virginia Woolf,

  edited, with a foreword, by Leonard Woolf.

  New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1950.

  LEONARD WOOLF, in selecting and publishing the shorter writings of his wife, Virginia Woolf, has taken occasion to emphasize, again and again, her long painstaking ways of working, her habit of many revisions and rewritings, and her refusal to publish anything until she had brought it to its final state. The four volumes to appear in the nine years since her death will probably be the lot, Mr. Woolf tells us. There seems to remain a certain amount of unfinished manuscripts—unfinished in the sense that she had intended still to reconsider them and would not herself have published them in their present versions. One cannot respect enough the devoted care and love and superb literary judgment of the executor of this precious estate.

  “In the previous volumes,” Mr. Woolf writes in his foreword to the latest collection, The Captain’s Death Bed, “I made no attempt to select essays in accordance with what I thought to be their merit or importance; I aimed at including in each volume some of all the various kinds of essay.”

  It is easy to agree with him when he finds “The essays in this volume are. . . no different in merit and achievement from those previously published.” Indeed, I found old favorites and new wonders in each of the earlier collections, finding still others again in this: the celebrated “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”; “Memories of a Working Woman’s Guild”; “The Novels of Turgenev”; “Oliver Goldsmith.” She speaks a convincing good word for Ruskin, such was her independence of taste, for surely this word is the first Ruskin has received in many a long year. She does a really expert taxidermy job on Sir Walter Raleigh, poor man, though he certainly deserved it; does another on reviewing, so severe her husband feels he must modify it a little with a footnote.

  The Captain’s Death Bed contains in fact the same delicious things to read as always; apparently her second or third draft was as good as her ninth or fifteenth; her last would be a little different, but surely not much better writing, that is clear. Only she, the good artist, without self-indulgence, would have known how much nearer with each change she was getting to the heart of her thought. For an example of how near she could come to it, read the three and one-half pages called “Gas.” It is about having a tooth out, in the same sense, as E. M. Forster once remarked, that Moby Dick is a novel about catching a whale.

  Now it is to be supposed that with this final gathering up of her life’s work the critics will begin their formal summings-up, analyses, exegeses; the
various schools will attack or defend her; she will be “placed” here and there; Freud will be involved, if he has not been already; elegies will be written: Cyril Connolly has already shed a few morning tears, and advised us not to read her novels for at least another decade: she is too painfully near to our most disastrous memories.

  It turns out merely that Mr. Connolly wishes us to neglect her because she reminds him of the thirties, which he, personally, cannot endure. A great many of us who have no grudges against either the twenties or the thirties will find this advice mystifying. And there is a whole generation springing up, ready to read what is offered, who know and care nothing for either of those decades. My advice must be exactly the opposite: read everything of Virginia Woolf’s now, for she has something of enormous importance to say at this time, here, today; let her future take care of itself.

  I cannot pretend to be coldly detached about her work, nor, even if I were able, would I be willing to write a purely literary criticism of it. It is thirty-five years since I read her first novel, The Voyage Out. She was one of the writers who touched the real life of my mind and feeling very deeply; I had from that book the same sense of some mysterious revelation of truth I had got in earliest youth from Laurence Sterne (“of all people!” jeers a Shandy-hating friend of mine), from Jane Austen, from Emily Brontë, from Henry James. I had grown up with these, and I went on growing with W. B. Yeats, the first short stories of James Joyce, the earliest novels of Virginia Woolf.

  In the most personal way, all of these seemed and do seem to be my contemporaries; their various visions of reality, their worlds, merged for me into one vision, one world view that revealed to me little by little my familiar place. Living as I did in a world of readers devoted to solid, tried and true literature, in which unimpeachable moral grandeur and inarguable doctrine were set forth in balanced paragraphs, these writers were my own private discoveries. Reading as I did almost no contemporary criticism, talking to no one, still it did not occur to me that these were not great artists, who if only people could be persuaded to read them (even if by the light of Dr. Johnson or Dean Swift) they would be accepted as simply and joyously as I accepted them.

  In some instances I was to have rude surprises. I could never understand the “revival” of Henry James; I had not heard that he was dead. Rather suddenly Jane Austen came back into fashionable favor; I had not dreamed she had ever been out of it.

  In much the same way I have been amazed at the career of Virginia Woolf among the critics. To begin with, there has been very little notice except of the weekly review variety. Compared to the libraries of criticism published about Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot and all her other fellow artists of comparable stature, she has had little consideration. In 1925 she puzzled E. M. Forster, whose fountain pen disappeared when he was all prepared in his mind to write about her early novels.

  Almost everything has been said, over and over, about Virginia Woolf’s dazzling style, her brilliant humor, her extraordinary sensibility. She has been called neurotic, and hypersensitive. Her style has been compared to cobwebs with dew drops, rainbows, landscapes seen by moonlight, and other unsubstantial but showy stuff. She has been called a Phoenix, Muse, a Sybil, a Prophetess, in praise, or a Feminist, in dispraise. Her beauty and remarkable personality, her short way with fools and that glance of hers, which chilled many a young literary man with its expression of seeing casually through a millstone—all of this got in the way. It disturbed the judgment and drew the attention from the true point of interest.

  Virginia Woolf was a great artist, one of the glories of our time, and she never published a line that was not worth reading. The least of her novels would have made the reputation of a lesser writer, the least of her critical writings compare more than favorably with the best criticism of the past half-century. In a long, sad period of fear, a world broken by wars, in which the artists have in the most lamentable way been the children of their time, knees knocking, teeth chattering, looking for personal salvation in the midst of world calamity, there appeared this artist, Virginia Woolf.

  She was full of secular intelligence primed with the profane virtues, with her love not only of the world of all the arts created by the human imagination, but a love of life itself and of daily living, a spirit at once gay and severe, exacting and generous, a born artist and a sober craftsman; and she had no plan whatever for her personal salvation; or the personal salvation even of someone else; brought no doctrine; no dogma. Life, the life of this world, here and now, was a great mystery, no one could fathom it; and death was the end. In short, she was what the true believers always have called a heretic.

  What she did, then, in the way of breaking up one of the oldest beliefs of mankind, is more important than the changes she made in the form of the novel. She wasn’t even a heretic—she simply lived outside of dogmatic belief. She lived in the naturalness of her vocation. The world of the arts was her native territory; she ranged freely under her own sky, speaking her mother tongue fearlessly. She was at home in that place as much as anyone ever was.

  D. H. Lawrence


  The Plumed Serpent, by D. H. Lawrence.

  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

  The Plumed Serpent is a confession of faith, a summing up of the mystical philosophy of D. H. Lawrence. Mexico, the Indians, the cult of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl—the Plumed Serpent—all these are pretexts, symbols made to the measure of his preoccupations. It seems only incidentally a novel, in spite of the perfection of its form; it is a record of a pilgrimage that was, that must have been, a devastating experience. Lawrence went to Mexico in the hope of finding there, among alien people and their mysterious cult, what he had failed to find in his own race or within himself: a center and a meaning to life. He went to the Indians with the hope of clinching once for all his argument that blood-nodality is the source of communion between man and man, and between man and the implacable gods. He desired to share this nodality, to wring from it the secret of the “second strength” which gives magic powers to a man. But blood itself stood between him and his desire.

  “She had noticed that usually, when an Indian looked at a white man, both stood back from actual contact, from actual meeting of each other’s eyes. They left a wide space of neutral territory between them. . . .” This acute flash of insight he gives to Kate Leslie, the Irish woman, the only white person among his chief characters. She carries all the burden of doubt and fear for the author, and is the most valid human being in the book. With all his will, his psychoanalytic equipment, and his curiosity, which is like a steel probe, Lawrence could not cross this neutral territory. These, and his poetic imagination touched to wonder, drive him resistlessly within touching distance. His mind sniffs out delicately, the filaments of his thought are like living nerve-ends, they shudder and are repelled at the nearness of a secret steeped, for him, in cosmic possibilities. He remains a stranger gazing at a mystery he cannot share, but still hopes to ravish, and his fancy dilates it to monstrous proportions.

  He has confessed somewhere that he was in a raging temper from the moment he passed over the line from the United States to Mexico. He blames this on the vibrations of cruelty and bloodshed in the country, the dark hopelessness that rises from the Indians and the very soil in an almost palpable vapor. He felt that the Mexican motive of existence is hatred. Lawrence is a good hater; he should know hate when he sees it. But it was not altogether an occult effluvium from the earth. His terror came halfway to meet it. A serpent lies coiled in the Indian vitals; their eyes are centerless. He cannot acknowledge blood-kin with them. He gives them a soul and takes it away again; they are dragon worshipers, only half-created; he surmises reptilian ichor in their veins. Yet he loves their beauty, and with all his soul he adores their phallic god; and so he remain a stranger, but makes his obeisance.

  The genius of Lawrence lies in his power to create out of his own inner experience, his own sensitized fibers, a personal world which is also our world, p
eopled with human beings recognizably of our own time and place. His world is a place of complex despair, his tragedies are of the individual temperament in double conflict, against the inner nightmare and the outer unendurable fact. Terror of death and nausea of life, sexual egotism and fear, a bitter will-to-power and an aspiration after mystical apartness, an impotent desire for the act of faith, combine into a senseless widdershins; they spin dizzily on their own centers of sensation, with a sick void at the core.

  Lawrence has turned away from this world, these persons, exhausted by their futility, unable to admit that their despairs and futilities are also his own. “Give me the mystery and let the world live again for me,” Kate cried in her own soul. “And deliver me from man’s automatism!” This woman is a perfect study of that last upsurge of romantic sex-hunger, disguised as a quest of the spirit, that comes with the grand climacteric. Lawrence identifies her purpose with his own, she represents his effort to touch the darkly burning Indian mystery. It could not happen: he is too involved in preconceptions and simple human prejudice. His artificial Western mysticism came in collision with the truly occult mind of the Indian, and he suffered an extraordinary shock. He turned soothsayer, and began to interpret by a formula: the result is a fresh myth of the Indian, a deeply emotional conception, but a myth none the less, and a debased one.

  For sheer magnificence of writing, Lawrence has surpassed himself. His style has ripened, softened, there is a melancholy hint of the overrichness of autumn. Who looks for mere phrases from him? He writes by the passage, by the chapter, a prose flexible as a whiplash, uneven and harmonious as breakers rolling upon a beach, and the sound is music. His language rises from the page not in words but in a series of images before the eye: human beings move in vivid landscapes, wrapped in a physical remoteness, yet speaking with a ghostly intimacy, as if you were listening to the secret pulse of their veins.

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