Dostoyevsky: The Taste for Literature and the Taste for Life

I remember the writers who gave me a taste for reading: Richard Matheson, Bram Stoker, Eiji Yoshikawa. Adventure and fantasy stories were my first literary loves; and both genres do have an unparalleled strength to capture imagination. The pleasure was always immediate: a mysterious or epic world opened up to us. Evil and heroic characters appeared there. A breathtaking plot, respecting certain codes specific to entertainment, was set up. Knowing how to appreciate such a narrative structure, enjoying the simple fact of opening a book, but also closing it, knowing that the story will continue the next day, this is what we could call “having a taste for reading.”

The “taste for reading,” I distinguish from the “taste for literature,” without discarding the hypothesis that the second is the maturation of the first. This “taste for literature” was given to me by Fedor Dostoyevsky; and I would like to show here that these are two different aesthetic events; that one can be awake to the first without being so to the second; that one can love to read without loving literature.

I discovered Dostoyevsky as a teenager. It was a purely chance encounter, almost a misunderstanding. But it had the charm of an encounter made without a go-between. As was the family tradition, I was on vacation in the Vendée, on the island of Noirmoutier. In the bookstore, where a few years earlier I had unearthed the novel, Stone and the Sword [first book of Musashi], I found myself intrigued this time by a name, “Dostoyevsky,” and by a title above all, The Possessed (it was only much later that I learned that this translation was incorrect and that it should be The Demons). Not knowing anything about the writer—the name vaguely reminded me of something—I thought I was in the presence of a fantastic work, a true story of possession. I bought the book hoping that this Dostoyevsky was a kind of Russian Stoker or Shelley.

What a surprise it was for me when I waded into those boring first pages (hardly the best beginning among Dostoyevsky’s novels), which had those exchanges, whose issues I did not understand, between Stefan Trofimovich (old idealist, father of Piotr Verkhovensky) and Varvara Petrovna (Stavrogin’s mother). I stuck it, however, for hours on end, waiting for the moment when the story of possession would occur. But nothing of that nature happened. In fact, something much more important appeared in the person of Stavrogin, a charismatic and shady character who dominates the novel with his fascinating presence.

It is a known fact that Dostoyevsky worked on his characters like no other writer; that he did so not by giving them a detailed physical description nor by placing them in a particularly coherent social and historical framework, but by giving them a deep psychology, in the sense of Nietzsche; and by playing on certain behavioral traits (gestures, manner of expression or, on the contrary, the unspoken). Some observers have made of this particular talent a pinnacle of “realism.” This is the case, for example, of the Welsh writer John Cowper Powys, who writes in his Dostoievsky (1946): ” I would add as a codicil that not only must what happens to the characters be of absorbing interest but the backgrounds, while entirely realistic, must have about them that something else without which, by some strange law of the mind, things do not remind us of that deeper reality of our own experience which must always remain on the brink of mystery.” In his eyes, the superiority of Dostoyevsky’s art over other realist novelists lies in the fact that it takes into account a dimension of reality often hidden, irreducible to the materiality of events. Dostoyevsky was able to show something that the others do not show, trapped by certain traditional codes of realism—codes that Dostoyevsky hijacked to transcend the genre and forge a realism “in four dimensions”: “Here we are at the heart of the problem: it is located between the ‘realism’ of Zola, say, or De Maupassant or Tolstoy or Hardy, and the more real realism of Fedor Dostoyevsky.” But is that what Dostoyevsky is all about? Is the issue only that of literary genre? Should we be satisfied with the fact that Dostoyevsky shows us “the mystery,” the hidden reality in a kind of overcoming of realism? In my opinion, it is something more powerful than that, which has to do with the very definition of literature.

Powys is right to make this point, but we think he does not go far enough. It is not enough to say that types like Stavrogin (based in part on the nihilist theorist Neshayev) or like Myshkin (after all, Christ is a historical figure) can be met in reality, can find a real equivalent in terms of intensity. It is necessary to go further and affirm—and here is perhaps the key to the mystery of literature—not only are exceptional historical characters not “novel characters,” but novel characters are exceptional “historical” characters. This is perhaps where Dostoyevsky’s genius lies in particular (but also that of a Balzac, despite Powys’ displeasure); and this is why his encounter with him is so disturbing.

By showing the mysterious dimension of the world, by exposing the souls of his characters, Dostoyevsky reaches a level of reality that is higher than the one we encounter in everyday life. This is why the meeting with Stavrogin is a shock (a shock that is renewed with Raskolnikov, Myshkin or the Karamazov siblings later). Dostoyevsky shows, through fiction, the essence of reality; that is to say, life. He does not only show us appearances, pretenses, social conventions, hypocrisy, which is the tragic and grey daily life of our reality. He shows the interiority of the soul. He shows the naked man. He exposes him in his greatest vulnerability. Dostoyevsky allows us to know his characters, not as we know others—since their interiority remains fatally inaccessible to us—but as we know ourselves.

In a strong sense, Dostoyevsky shows subjectivity. He manages to show what is usually invisible. André Suarès had already noticed this in his Dostoïevski (1911): “No power is closer to life. The great dreamers are the great living. Where they seem to be farthest from life, they still touch it more closely than others.” Or again, “Everything is interior. It is not even the thought that creates the world, by figuring it. It is the emotion which creates all life, by making it sensitive to the heart. The world is not even the image of a mind. The universe is the creation of intuition.”

This is what one realizes when confronted with the presence of Stavrogin: this unique character is indeed a “real man,” a living man. He is a real man because of the radical nature of his baseness, because of the unhealthy fascination he exerts on others, because of the absurdity of his behavior. For sure, a real hero of a novel would never have acted like this, with this ambiguity, this perpetual balancing between the greatness of the commitment and the emptiness of the conviction. Stavrogin expressed something extremely powerful and completely new for me—literature is the most adequate expression of reality, of life itself.

The encounter with Dostoyevsky, which I had first thought of as entertainment, as the possibility of reading a pleasant book on the beach, turned out to be something else entirely. From then on, I understood something new—books are not only there to amuse us, to give us aesthetic pleasure, nor even, as we trivially say, to make us think. Books, in so far as they are authentically literary works, are manifestations of reality. They are both the expression of a subjective life, that of the writer, and the concrete realization of a new “objectivity.” Stavrogin exists, like Raskolnikov or Prince Myshkin. But they exist in a certain way outside the world, outside the lies of the world. Or rather, trapped in the world’s theater, they drop a veil and participate in its indictment.

For Dostoyevsky, the world (both in the “worldly” sense and in the sense of the strict objectivity of what is visible) is the place of lies. This is what gives Dostoyevsky’s astonishing power—he teaches us, often for the first time, that the world as it is, is a scandal. This constitutes a sort of exit from innocence. The staging of abjection and injustice functions as a revelation. In Crime and Punishment, the hero Raskolnikov is the murderer of an old pawnbroker, while Sonia, a redemptive figure, has sacrificed everything for her family, even going so far as to prostitute herself in order not to starve. In The Demons, the hero Stavrogin rapes a little girl. Shatov, on the other hand, is killed while his child is being born. In The Idiot, Myshkin, a Christ-like figure and main character, is mocked for his benevolence. Nastasia Filipovna, the woman he loves, eventually marries his rival Rogozhin, who eventually kills her. Hyppolite, a young phthisic who wants to go on a rampage, is unable to commit suicide.

It is a commonplace to say that certain books or writers accompany us throughout our lives. But it would be a mistake to say that Dostoyevsky is a simple companion. He does not only accompany us in the world, he shows us the reality of the world. He brings with him the world as it really is by exposing the souls of men. He tears the veil of appearances to show a man, often mediocre, unhappy, sick, sometimes ignoble, sometimes fortunately close to sanctity. Dostoyevsky’s work constitutes, as we said, an indictment of the world and its hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in the social conduct, in the respect of certain hierarchies and, more generally, in the value that one can grant to men. Dostoyevsky asks this radical question: what is a man worth? Not in the lowly material sense of professional success, but in the sense of the purity of his heart, of his closeness or distance from the Christian model. And Suarez knew how Dostoyevsky answered: “He considered that the first in rank are often the last in life; and the last in the world, the first in the hidden soul of the world. There he learned to put himself above all appearances. There he made himself to live in depth—for all the work of Dostoevsky is a life in depth and, no doubt, in the secret truth, which is the only truth.”

With Dostoyevsky, the world of childhood, the reassuring cocoon—the one where the book is a fiction that we look at from the outside and that cannot reach us—suddenly collapses. It disintegrates before our eyes and reveals its nightmarish nature. This is perhaps the fundamental difference between “reading” and “literature.” The book, which constitutes a simple “reading,” can be closed, put on our night table, put at a distance of our conscience. Its history does not follow us afterwards, except perhaps in our dreams. The book, which belongs to “literature,” never closes. We start to read Dostoyevsky, but we never finish. His work becomes for the reader a perpetually turning page. The world that Dostoyevsky brings with him is not only a fiction, a repulsion imagined to make the readers shudder, it is the face of the world itself.

This is why Dostoyevsky was very critical of Turgenev, whom he considered a writer of good conscience. Dostoyevsky is the writer of the bad conscience! The writer of sin! That is why he speaks to us so much. Because we all know in the end that nothing is right. Or rather, every sane man knows that he has something to blame himself for. In 1928, Freud showed in his preface to the German translation of The Brothers Karamazov, “Dostoyevsky and Parricide,” that Dostoyevsky was fundamentally a figure of the sinner, that he was haunted by the idea of sin at the same time as by that of freedom. For the one does not go without the other; there is no sin without freedom; and, conversely, there is no freedom without sin. It is this very human tension that Dostoyevsky meditated on throughout his work, that he experienced in his flesh; and we with him.

Dostoyevsky obsesses the reader because he confronts him with his faults, with his most unavowable desires and with the vertigo of freedom. The latter offers man the possibility to do everything, to act beyond good and evil, to accomplish the greatest things, but also the lowest. But there is something that limits our use of freedom, and that is the consciousness of sin. To what extent can a free man assume to be a sinner? This is the question that Dostoyevsky’s characters ask themselves; it is the question that he asks himself; and it is the question that we ask ourselves.

Dostoyevsky shows the disturbing abyss implied by the very possibility of an unlimited use of freedom. But at the same time, he says: can you assume the odious character of such a freedom, of a freedom without God or in place of God? Can you assume the freedom of a Raskolnikov, a Kirilov, a Stavrogin? The first takes the path of redemption; the second commits suicide to show that he is God himself; the third, who believed he could make his conscience evolve in an amoral space, ends up hanging himself, caught up in his terrible sin: the rape of a girl.

The supreme act of nihilism—the outrage inflicted on the child (the most innocent of innocents), reveals the very failure of nihilism. Nihilism is impossible for man. It claims that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” But God does exist insofar as He is the condition of possibility of freedom itself. Pierre Boutang does not say otherwise when he writes in an article entitled “Stavrogin”: “When Stavrogin wants to explain, in his confession, the effect of Matryosha’s suicide on his existence, he cannot hold his own judgment within ethics. Despite his desire for the Cross, without faith in the Cross, he fails to be a Christian, to conceive of the evil and shame of his crime. No, in this fragmentation of inner time, he oscillates between an almost social, extremely low and diabolical idea of the act as ridiculous, and a metaphysical view, beyond ethics, but which can only lead to madness and death.”

For Dostoyevsky any attempt to evolve beyond good and evil is doomed to failure. And this is also the case of literature. This is why, as André Markowicz points out, his conception of literature is not aesthetic but ethical (or rather, contrary to the proponents of art for art’s sake, it identifies ethics and aesthetics). Dostoyevsky’s work cannot therefore be consumed as entertainment. Its goal is not to please us. It is fundamentally an indictment of the world and a revelation of the profound reality of existence. In his quest for truth, which is synonymous with the quest for God, Dostoyevsky tells us what man is. And with him we understand—it is through literature that we gain access to the radical interiority of life, that is to say, to the person of Christ who is the only beauty.


Matthieu Giroux is a Dostoyevskian sovereignist and the editorial director of PHLITT. This article appears through the generous courtesy of PHLITT.


Featured image: “Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg,” by Ilya Glazunov.

The Art of Discrimination

John Cowper Powys (1872—1963) was an English (and American) essayist, novelist, poet and philosopher. His work is marked by depth of ideas, complexity of character and much humor. He is also, sadly, much-neglected in our time. This excerpt is from Suspended Judgments. Essays on Books and Sensations, which was published in 1916, and which explores the works of men who have had the greatest impact on the Western life of the mind. We hope that this excerpt will serve in some small way to nurture interest in Powys’ work.


The world divides itself into people who can discriminate and people who cannot discriminate. This is the ultimate test of sensitiveness; and sensitiveness alone separates us and unites us.

We all create, or have created for us by the fatality of our temperament, a unique and individual universe. It is only by bringing into light the most secret and subtle elements of this self-contained system of things that we can find out where our lonely orbits touch.

Like all primordial aspects of life the situation is double-edged and contradictory.

The further we emphasise and drag forth, out of their reluctant twilight, the lurking attractions and antipathies of our destiny, the nearer, at once, and the more obscure, we find ourselves growing, to those about us.

And the wisdom of the difficult game we are called upon to play, lies in just this very antinomy,—in just this very contradiction—that to make ourselves better understood we have to emphasise our differences, and to touch the universe of our friend we have to travel away from him, on a curve of free sky.

The cultivation of what in us is lonely and unique creates of necessity a perpetual series of shocks and jars. The unruffled nerves of the lower animals become enviable, and we fall into moods of malicious reaction and vindictive recoil. And yet,—for Nature makes use even of what is named evil to pursue her cherished ends—the very betrayal of our outraged feelings produces no unpleasant effect upon the minds of others. They know us better so, and the sense of power in them is delicately gratified by the spectacle of our weakness; even as ours is by the spectacle of theirs.

The art of discrimination is the art of letting oneself go, more and more wilfully; letting oneself go along the lines of one’s unique predilections; letting oneself go with the resolute push of the inquisitive intellect; the intellect whose rôle it is to register—with just all the preciseness it may—every one of the little discoveries we make on the long road.

The difference between interesting and uninteresting critics of life, is just the difference between those who have refused to let themselves be thus carried away, on the stream of their fatality, and those who have not refused. That is why in all the really arresting writers and artists there is something equivocal and disturbing when we come to know them.

Genius itself, in the last analysis, is not so much the possession of unusual vision—some of the most powerful geniuses have a vision quite mediocre and blunt—as the possession of a certain demonic driving-force, which pushes them on to be themselves, in all the fatal narrowness and obstinacy, it may be, of their personal temperament.

The art of discrimination is precisely what such characters are born with; hence the almost savage manner in which they resent the beckonings of alien appeals; appeals which would draw them out of their pre-ordained track.

One can see in the passionate preference displayed by men of real power for the society of simple and even truculent persons over that of those who are urbanely plastic and versatile, how true this is.

Between their own creative wilfulness and the more static obstinacy of these former, there is an instinctive bond; whereas the tolerant and colourless cleverness of the latter disconcerts and puzzles them.

This is why—led by a profound instinct—the wisest men of genius select for their female companions the most surprising types, and submit to the most wretched tyranny. Their craving for the sure ground of unequivocal naturalness helps them to put up with what else were quite intolerable.

For it is the typical modern person, of normal culture and playful expansiveness, who is the mortal enemy of the art of discrimination.

Such a person’s shallow cleverness and conventional good-temper is more withering to the soul of the artist than the blindest bigotry which has the recklessness of genuine passion behind it.

Not to like or to dislike people and things, but to tolerate and patronise a thousand passionate universes, is to put yourself out of the pale of all discrimination. To discriminate is to refine upon one’s passions by the process of bringing them into intelligent consciousness. The head alone cannot discriminate; no! not with all the technical knowledge in the world; for the head cannot love nor hate, it can only observe and register.

Nor can the nerves alone discriminate; for they can only cry aloud with a blind cry. In the management of this art, what we need is the nerves and the head together, playing up to one another; and, between them, carrying further—always a little further—the silent advance, along the road of experience, of the insatiable soul.

It is indeed only in this way that one comes to recognise what is, surely, of the essence of all criticism; the fact, namely, that the artists we care most for are doing just the thing we are doing ourselves—doing it in their own way and with their own inviolable secret, but limited, just as we are, by the basic limitations of all flesh.

The art of discrimination is, after all, only the art of appreciation, applied negatively as well as positively; applied to the flinging away from us and the reducing to non-existence for us, of all those forms and modes of being, for which, in the original determination of our taste, we were not, so to speak, born.

And this is precisely what, in a yet more rigorous manner, the artists whose original and subtle paths we trace, effected for themselves in their own explorations.

What is remarkable about this cult of criticism is the way in which it lands us back, with quite a new angle of interest, at the very point from which we started; at the point, namely, where Nature in her indiscriminate richness presents herself at our doors.

It is just here that we find how much we have gained, in delicacy of inclusion and rejection, by following these high and lonely tracks. All the materials of art, the littered quarries, so to speak, of its laborious effects have become, in fact, of new and absorbing interest. Forms, colours, words, sounds; nay! the very textures and odours of the visible world, have reduced themselves, even as they lie here, or toss confusedly together on the waves of the life-stream, into something curiously suggestive and engaging.

We bend our attention to one and to another. We let them group themselves casually, as they will, in their random way, writing their own gnomic hieroglyphics, in their own immense and primeval language, as the earth-mothers heave them up from the abyss or draw them down; but we are no more confined to this stunned and bewildered apprehension.

We can isolate, distinguish, contrast.

We can take up and put down each delicate fragment of potential artistry; and linger at leisure in the work-shop of the immortal gods.

Discrimination of the most personal and vehement kind in its relation to human works of art, may grow largely and indolently receptive when dealing with the scattered materials of such works, spread out through the teeming world.

Just here lies the point of separation between the poetic and the artistic temper. The artist or the art-critic, discriminating still, even among these raw materials of human creation, derives an elaborate and subtle delight from the suggestiveness of their colours, their odours, and their fabrics—conscious all the while of wondrous and visionary evocations, wherein they take their place.

The poetical temper, on the other hand, lets itself go with a more passive receptivity; and permits the formless, wordless brooding of the vast earthpower to work its magic upon it, in its own place and season. Not, however, in any destruction of the defining and registering functions of the intellect does this take place.

Even in the vaguest obsessions of the poetical mind the intellect is present, watching, noting, weighing, and, if you will, discriminating.

For, after all, poetry, though completely different in its methods, its aims, and its effects from the other arts, is itself the greatest of all the arts and must be profoundly aware, just as they are aware, of the actual sense-impressions which produce its inspiration.

The difference, perhaps, is that, whereas the materials for the other arts become most suggestive when isolated and disentangled from the mass, the materials of poetry, though bringing with them, in this case or in the other, their particular sense-accompaniment, must be left free to flow organically together, and to produce their effect in that primeval wanton carelessness, wherein the gods themselves may be supposed to walk about the world.

One thing at least is clear. The more we acquire a genuine art of discrimination amid the subtler processes of the mind the less we come to deal in formulated or rationalistic theory.

The chief rôle of the intellect in criticism is to protect us from the intellect; to protect us from those tiresome and unprofitable “principles of art” which in everything that gives us thrilling pleasure are found to be magnificently contradicted!

Criticism, whether of literature or art, is but a dead hand laid upon a living thing, unless it is genuine response, to the object criticised, of something reciprocal in us. Criticism in fact, to be of any value, must be a stretching out of our whole organic nature, a sort of sacramental partaking, with both senses and soul, of the bread and wine of the “new ritual.”

The actual written or spoken word in explanation of what we have come to feel about the thing offered, is after all a mere subordinate issue.

The essential matter is that what we experience in regard to the new touch, the new style, should be a personal and absorbing plunge into an element which we feel at once to have been, as it were, “waiting” to receive us with a predestined harmony.

The point I am seeking to make is that what is called the “critical attitude” towards new experiments in art is the extreme opposite of the mood required in genuine criticism.

That negation of interest in any given new thing which is not only allowable but commendable, if we are to preserve the outlines of our identity from the violence of alien intrusion, becomes a sheer waste of energy when it is transmuted into ponderous principles of rejection.

Give us, ye gods, full liberty to pass on our way indifferent. Give us even the illuminating insight of unbounded hate. But deliver us—that at least we pray—from the hypocrisy of judicial condemnation!

More and more does it become necessary, as the fashion of new things presses insolently upon us, to clear up once for all and in a largely generous manner, the difficult question of the relation of experiment to tradition.

The number of shallow and insensitive spirits who make use of the existence of these new forms, to display—as if it were a proof of aesthetic superiority—their contempt for all that is old, should alone lead us to pause and consider.

Such persons are as a rule quite as dull to real subtleties of thought and feeling as any absolute Philistine; and yet they are the ones who with their fuss about what they call “creative art” do so much to make reasonable and natural the ordinary person’s prejudices against the whole business.

They actually have the audacity to claim as a mark of higher aesthetic taste their inability to appreciate traditional beauty. They make their ignorance their virtue; and because they are dull to the delicate things that have charmed the centuries, they clamorously acclaim the latest sensational novelty, as though it had altered the very nature of our human senses.

One feels instinctive suspicion of this wholesale way of going to work, this root and branch elimination of what has come down to us from the past. It is right and proper—heaven knows—for each individual to have his preferences and his exclusions. He has not, one may be quite sure, found himself if he lacks these. But to have as one’s basic preference a relinquishing in the lump of all that is old, and a swallowing in the lump of all that is new, is carrying things suspiciously far.

One begins to surmise that a person of this brand is not a rebel or a revolutionary, but quite simply a thick-skin; a thick-skin endowed with that insolence of cleverness which is the enemy of genius and all its works.

True discrimination does not ride rough-shod over the past like this. It has felt the past too deeply. It has too much of the past in its own blood. What it does, allowing for a thousand differences of temperament, is to move slowly and warily forward, appropriating the new and assimilating, in an organic manner, the material it offers; but never turning round upon the old with savage and ignorant spleen.

But it is hard, even in these most extreme cases, to draw rigorous conclusions.

Life is full of surprises, of particular and exceptional instances. The abnormal is the normal; and the most thrilling moments some of us know are the moments when we snatch an inspiration from a quarter outside our allotted circle.

There are certain strangely constituted ones in our midst whose natural world, it might seem, existed hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Bewildered and harassed they move through our modern streets; puzzled and sad they gaze out from our modern windows. They seem, in their wistful way, hardly conscious of the movements about them, and all our stirring appeals leave them wearily cold.

It is with the very wantonness of ironic insult that our novelty-mongers come to these, bringing fantastic inventions. What is it to them, children of a nobler past, that this or the other newly botched-up caprice should catch for an hour the plaudits of the mob?

On the other hand, one comes now and again, though rarely enough, upon exceptional natures whose proper and predestined habitation seems to be rather with our children’s children than with us.

The word has gone forth touching what is called super-man; but the natures I speak of are not precisely that.

Rather are they devoid in some strange manner of the gross weapons, the protective skin, adapted to the shocks and jolts of our rough and tumble civilisation. They seem prepared and designed to exist in a finer, a more elaborate, in a sense a more luxurious world, than the one we live in.

Their passions are not our passions; nor is their scorn our scorn. If the magic of the past leaves them indifferent, the glamour of the present finds them antipathetic and resentful. With glacial coldness they survey both past and present, and the frosty fire of their devotion is for what, as yet, is not.

Dull indeed should we be, if in the search of finer and more delicate discriminations in the region of art, we grew blunt and blind to the subtle-edged pathos of all these delicate differences between man and man.

It is by making our excursions in the aesthetic world thus entirely personal and idiosyncratic that we are best spared from the bitter remorse implicit in any blunders in this more complex sphere.

We have learned to avoid the banality of the judicial decisions in the matter of what is called beautiful. We come to learn their even greater uselessness in the matter of what is called the good.

To discriminate, to discriminate endlessly, between types we adore and types we suspect, this is well and wise; but in the long result we are driven, whether it is pleasant to our prejudices or not that it should be so, crushingly to recognise that in the world of human character there are really no types at all; only tragic and lonely figures; figures unable to express what they want of the universe, of us, of themselves; figures that can never, in all the aeons of time, be repeated again; figures in whose obliquities and ambiguities the mysteries of all the laws and all the prophets are transcended!


Featured image: “Job mocked by his Wife,” by Georges de La Tour; painted ca. 1650.

W.B. Yeats and Tradition

The French traditionalist philosopher René Guénon wrote in his Crisis of the Modern World that the craving for the material is an inherent feature of modern Western civilization. The need for endless activity, the pursuit of the material, the desire to keep up with the accelerating rhythm of everyday life have replaced tradition; that is, the awareness of human life through a higher principle that goes beyond the material understanding of life. The philosophy of rationalism, empiricism, and positivism, on which the modern understanding of things rests, recognizes only knowledge gained by contact with matter, and religion and metaphysics as “obsolete” worldviews that have no place in a world of nonstop progress.

Philosophy that emerges in the modern age inverts man’s understanding of life, literally from top to bottom. If in primordial (i.e., traditional, according to Guénon) society and then in Christian (medieval) society the vertical model of awareness of reality prevailed—God is the Absolute, who orders life on earth—then, starting in the 17th century, man becomes the measure of all things, and he defines existence for himself. In the new, materialistic world, truth does not lie in a higher principle, but is the result of the thinking of the individual person. Society, philosophy, and politics are not built according to “God’s will,” but according to human thinking.

In this context, Nietzsche’s words become clear: “God is dead. And we killed him.” This means that the modern philosophical paradigm has put in the place of God—the Antichrist, embodied in the unstoppable pursuit of progress and the immutability of material values of Western European civilization, which carried out a rebellion against God.

In the nineteenth century, when Nietzsche lived, the intensification of industrialization and the flowering of capitalism led to an even greater dependence on money and a rejection of traditional values. The expansion of cities and total resettlement severed the of families to their homeland, leading to a loss of intergenerational understanding. Along with the dominance of money came economic doctrines: free trade and Marxism, according to which economic relations are the fundamental principle of building society; and culture, religion and even politics are secondary elements. The new belief in the materialistic sciences began to prevail over the belief in God. The will to accumulate monetary wealth overcame the will to be spiritual.

In the early twentieth century, the conservative philosopher Oswald Spengler, in his voluminous work The Decline of West, expressed the idea that Western civilization had entered its last cycle. He understood the crisis of the Western world as the problem of civilization, which is the final stage in the development of culture. “Civilizations are the most extreme and most artificial states to which only man of the highest kind is capable.” Thus, Spengler declared that Western culture has disappeared qualitatively and had reincarnated into a civilization that rests on the power of materialism and progress.

It can be said that the three above-mentioned philosophers—Nietzsche, Guénon and Spengler—articulated the state of decline of their modern world, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was artistically felt by many writers and poets. Some members of the creative intelligentsia responded sharply to the challenges of the material world; in their work, they not only spoke caustically about the problems of the new world order, but also called for a return to the deep roots of tradition.

One of the poets who “rebelled” against the modern world was the leader of the Irish literary revival, W. B. Yeats. In many ways his creative path was shaped by his interest in mysticism and esotericism and his refusal to accept material temptations as the basis of life.

Yeats was born in 1865, at a time when Ireland was sharply contrasting its metaphysical, popular spirit with the imperial and colonial ambitions of England, which was expanding its presence in many parts of the world. The imperative of modernity, industrial revolution and progress, imposed by England, was alien to “a society dominated by Celtic archaicism.” Against this background, a particular Irish way began to develop assertively, which combined folk identity and the Celtic spirit, created not by artificial simulacra of modernity, but taking its origin in the traditions and legends of old Ireland.

Thus, from an early age, Yeats moved in the circles of writers and artists who introduced him to the ancient Irish myths and instilled in him a love of his Celtic roots. The future poet became aware early on of his soil-based identity, which eventually became a defining factor in his later work. At the age of 20, Yeats was no longer shy about identifying himself with soil-oriented movements. The young writer joined the “Young Ireland” movement, and then in his poetry there appeared a national motif, expressed in praise of Irish rebellion and a negative attitude, above all, to modern England.

Young Ireland’s Sovereignism was based on a hatred of British utilitarianism and a desire for global subjugation of the indigenous peoples of other countries. Political and cultural liberation from the dictates of England was seen as setting the stage for a deeper transformation of Irish society and the end of the cycle of decline. It is important to note that for Yeats the revolt against British colonialism was based not on the enthusiastic possibility of building a “nation-state,” which is also a bourgeois construct, but primarily on the principles of Irish cultural revival, based on its mythology, history and Tradition.

His understanding of the historical context and cultural decline of Ireland motivated him to write, for example, such a poem as “The Curse of Cromwell.” Oliver Cromwell’s revolution, as well as subsequent revolutions in Europe (and Russia), marked the triumph of materialism over spirit and tradition. Modern English society was founded on a puritanical money ethic that spread to other parts of the world as well. This was unacceptable to Yeats and his circle. They believed that a small, soil-based and anti-bourgeois Ireland should stand up to the Protestant and capitalist sedition that had spread its stench across Europe:

You ask what—I have found, and far and wide I go:
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew,
The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay,
And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride—
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

This is how the poet conveys his idea that English modern society, which has established its materialistic one-man rule, has destroyed the tradition and “chivalrous” spirit of old England. There were no more people of noble tradition, no more “high men;” the old-time cheerfulness of the peasant village, the squire’s manor and the aristocrat’s estate were destroyed.

In many ways, of course, Yeats’s soil and traditionalism stemmed from the poet’s interest in religion. As a teenager, he sensed that poetry and artistic culture in general were fueled by signs, symbols, and a strange magical mystery that had no place in the material world. But the soulless scientific materialism of the nineteenth century—the Darwinist theory of human evolution, the discovery by scientists of the age of the earth, etc.—deadened belief in the divine, as well as ancient knowledge in alchemy, the mysteries of numbers, and metaphysics.

Yeats saw that official Christianity—Irish Catholicism and English Protestantism—were driven into the conventions of the new materialist era. He rejected Protestantism as totally unorthodox and alien. His contemporary Catholicism also had nothing in common with the sacraments, rites and Christian mysticism. Insisting on intuitive spiritual truths inaccessible to the philistine worldview, he set out in search of a secret, symbolically expressed wisdom which he thought might be common to the world’s various orthodox and unorthodox religious traditions.

It is telling that Yeats’ understanding of the foundations of Christianity and any religion is similar to that of traditionalist philosophers, such as René Guénon. For Guénon, the fact of being introduced to Tradition is important; he points out that Tradition (the philosopher intentionally capitalizes this word) is a special reality, a special language, which is opposed to the reality of the modern world. Guénon structured a “skeleton” of Tradition that precedes “the formulation of a particular Tradition in its historically fixable incarnation.” In other words, there is one truth that is embodied differently in one particular tradition or another.

An interest in Tradition with a capital letter led Yeats to a fascination with mystical movements and organizations practicing hermeticism and studying the sacred sciences. In 1897, Yates moved to London and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a major influence in the revival of interest in metaphysics in England.

Yeats saw in the metaphysical and the spiritual a basic unity for all manifestations of culture and Tradition, which was embodied in the magical original: “I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed.”

Human wisdom, divine revelation, and truth exist in all people of Tradition simultaneously, flowing from one mind into another, and revealed in one mind, in one energy. Let us compare this with what Guénon wrote: “In traditional civilization, it is almost impossible for a person to attribute an idea exclusively to himself… If an idea is true, it belongs to all who are able to comprehend it… A true idea cannot be ‘new,’ since truth is not a product of the human mind.”

Guénon was born 20 years after Yeats, but they worked and wrote around the same time. There is no evidence that Yeats was acquainted with the writings of Guénon , but it is surprising that two men who lived in different parts of the world—Yeats in England and Ireland, Gaenon (mostly) in Egypt—discovered the same truth of Tradition.

Guénon devoted part of his life to the study of the Hindu tradition. And it is significant that Yeats also studied Hindu philosophy with the theosophist Mohini Chatterjee, and joined the Theosophical Society in 1895. However, after the formation of the Irish Hermetic Order, the poet decided to devote himself to the study of the spiritual basis of Celtic culture and mythology, as a devoted son of his fatherland.

In 1931, no longer a young man, he met the Hindu preacher Sri Purohit Swami and again immersed himself in Hinduism. This second period of interest in Hindu mysticism replaced the romantic fascination of the early period with a much more active personal quest, accompanied by public apologetics for Eastern esotericism. Thus, despite his individual artistic path, Yeats had many points of contact with the founder of the philosophy of traditionalism and the chief critic of the modern world, René Guénon.

It should be noted that Yeats’s interest in Hinduism was more a strongly orientalized version of traditionalism rather than a complete immersion in the Hindu tradition, because his knowledge was gained at a considerable distance from India. Yeats’s study of Celtic archaicism, Hindu mysticism, or metaphysics are manifestations of a common truth that is revealed through the study of either tradition or religion.

Traditionalism opened to the poet a special understanding of the world and a vision of things. Yeats was characterized by a cyclical vision of history. In accordance with the Celtic tradition, he believed that “a complete cycle takes place within two millennia, and on this basis he linked the new stage of Irish liberation and rebirth with the more global processes—the end of the old aeon and the beginning of the new.” The philosopher Alexander Dugin uses the word “aeon” here not by chance—the cycles of time are characteristic of both European traditions and Hindu cosmology (where the term is taken from).

Guénon, describing Hindu teachings, claimed that the human cycle is divided into four epochs, during which primordial spirituality becomes more and more obscured. Currently, humanity is at the darkest point of the last cycle, Kali Yuga. And we have been in the “Dark Age” for six millennia; that is, since time older than known to history. According to Hindu doctrine, the end of the cycle will prove to be the beginning of a new cycle, when primordial Tradition will once again become true for all.

The cyclicality described in Hindu cosmology has common features with Christian eschatology described in the Revelation of John the Evangelist—the end of the world will come when the Antichrist will be born on earth and the wrath of God will fall on humanity.

After that Jesus Christ will appear and establish His kingdom forever. The Apostolic interpretation of the end of the world has the same structure as any Tradition—the end of the old, dark world and the beginning of the new world of light.

The theme of the Apocalypse is vividly reflected in Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming.” In it, the poet combines all the major themes of his work—the decline of Western European culture (“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), the loss of its spiritual core (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), the appeal to the mystical World Soul (“Spiritus Mundi”), the antagonism between the kingdom of the Antichrist, the world of modernity, and the Kingdom of Christ, the world of Tradition (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”).

It is quite clear that the poet prophesies the appearance of a certain eschatological monster that will emerge from the chaos of the modern world, with its craving for the material, the denial of traditional values and the absolute of destructive progress:

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is interesting that in his poetry (as seen in this example) Yeats uses modernist literary devices, such as allusions to literary monuments and biblical motifs to describe modernity. The modernist techniques in Yeats’s work are symptomatic, but he can be classified as a modernist only in form, not in content. “Yeats was immersed in modernity only in part—to the extent of his engagement with English culture and English society… but at the same time his cultural identity was rooted in the traditional society that prevailed in Ireland until very recently.”

Recall also that the cyclical nature of the times—from dark to light and from light to dark—is found in Spengler: “Birth contains death, youth contains old age, life as such contains its image and its predetermined limits of duration. Modernity is a civilized and not at all a civilized age.” However, this “Spenglerian” (and at the same time ” Guénonian”) theme in Yeats’s poem takes into account not only the demise of civilization, but also the time cycle, where a new king (Jesus Christ) emerges from a decadent era to begin the rebirth of culture.

Like Spengler and Guénon, Yeats saw meaning and hope in emerging “hermetic” societies, as well as right-wing movements that promised to revive the world of Tradition and oppose their politics to the unstoppable machine of progress and money. The poet’s entire oeuvre is permeated with warnings about the perniciousness of modernity and the banality of the material world. Ultimately, though, Yeats, like any traditionalist, anticipated that the crisis of the modern world would inevitably lead to the final destruction of civilization, and he was prepared for the coming of the Antichrist so that he could subsequently cross the threshold and find himself in a new cycle of a renewed world. This belief did not leave him until the end of his creative journey, even when there were hardly any like-minded people left. Hence Yeats was honorably called “the last knight of Tradition” in the Irish literary canon.


Pavel Kiselev is a Russian literary critic. His work appears in Katehon, to whose generous courtesy we owe this essay.


Featured image: Portrait of William Butler Yeats, by Sarah Purser; painted in June 1898.

The Prescience Of Rudyard Kipling

In 1896, English writer and political observer Rudyard Kipling published a short poem titled, “The Deep-Sea Cables”:

The Deep-Sea Cables

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar --
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world -- here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat --
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth --
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, "Let us be one!"

The late nineteenth century was the halcyon age of the British Empire, an empire for which Kipling is often remembered (or, more accurately, detracted) as an “apologist.” It is rare to find a mention of Kipling in the popular press without a damning association, with his 1899 verse encouragement of the American takeover of the Philippines, “White Man’s Burden.”

On that reading, and given Kipling’s reputation as the “unofficial poet laureate of Empire,” it would be justified to explicate “The Deep-Sea Cables” as a typical pith-helmeted glorification of British rule over the planet—now, with the laying of the submarine cables, aided by the cutting edge of communications technology. With the “deep-sea cables” spiderwebbing the ocean floor, Kipling seems to be anticipating, the world will finally, as the British Empire aimed for all along, “be one.”

I take a very different view of “The Deep-Sea Cables,” and a very different view of Kipling. The later British Empire subject Eric Blair, who very much wrote in Kipling’s shadow, when he wrote about imperialism as George Orwell, adopted a cynical view of British rule which Kipling, the usual interpretation goes, was too tally-ho and forward-march to understand. However, if we take Kipling on his own terms, and read the poem for what it says, I believe we arrive at a much darker vision for the touted unity of humanity than one finds when “The Deep-Sea Cables” is read flat against the page and in the darkroom redlight of post-imperial autopsies. “The Deep-Sea Cables” was not encomium but Greek tragedy, a warning against the hubris of men who think they have become like the gods.

In the September, 2019, issue of The Kipling Journal, I find an intriguing note about “The Deep-Sea Cables,” linking it to a couple of other Kipling poems “in which we are treated to a glimpse of a huge blind sea monster, which an underwater earthquake hurls up to the surface.” Godzilla some sixty years in advance, perhaps. But I think the analogy is more than coincidental. The 1956 Japanese movie Godzilla, like “The Deep-Sea Cables,” can also be read two ways. On the one hand, Godzilla is a campy horror flick—more for laughing at than for being frightened by—about a monster (so obviously a guy in a rubber suit) lurching out of the Pacific Ocean to stomp around Tokyo. On the other hand, Godzilla is a commentary on war, imperial politics, and the nightmare of nuclear holocaust. “The Deep-Sea Cables,” too, can be read as a celebration of empire; or, as I read it, as a warning about human pride, about the false ecumenicism of what today I think we would call “globalization.”

To get a sense of what Kipling was trying to say in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” let us start with the last line of the poem. Here, we find the word “Word” curiously capitalized. This is the hinge of the work.

In a 2015 essay in Modern Fiction Studies, Heather Fielding interprets the capitalization this way: “As the capitalization of ‘Word’ indicates, Kipling ascribes a clear moral authority to the unifying power of the telegraph wires, which enable communication and in the process draw subjects of different nations toward a ‘common good’ that was certainly imperial, Christian, and British in nature.” In the endnote following this sentence Fielding drives the point home further: “Of course, Kipling’s vision of the common structure uniting mankind is an imperialist one. As Bernhard Siegert argues [in Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, trans. Kevin Repp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], ‘[t]he command given… in the “deserts of the deep” was not to become one, but to become ‘British.’” Again, the standard “Kipling as imperial apologist” interpretation.

But consider that Rudyard Kipling, although notoriously difficult to pin down theologically was a product of a British education, and as such would no doubt have been more than passingly familiar with the Holy Bible. Even if Kipling was an atheist, as he himself seems to have said, he would have known the foundational text of Christianity much better than most in our contemporary secular culture do. The Bible would have been baseline for his literary development, storehouse for the imagery and phrasing which a poet deploys in his crafting of lines. In the Bible, in the Gospel of St. John, we read of the “Eternal Word,” Who came into the world, which knew Him not.

The capitalization of “Word” in Kipling’s poem has nothing at all to do with the glorification of empire, nor of being British, nor of being Christian. Kipling was no Pollyanna, no evangelical soapbox orator. Kipling’s odd use of the capitalized “Word” is a warning, with unmistakable Biblical overtones, that man is arrogating to himself a power which he does not understand, and which has the potential to ruin him.

Working backwards from the last line, the rest of “The Deep-Sea Cables” follows from this single capitalized word. At the beginning of the poem, we find ourselves at the bottom of the pitch-black sea, with the wrecks of the vessels which men have built “dissolv[ing]” above us and “drop[ping] down from afar.” The world of men is distant from this deep, dark place. The surface of things, the ships and commerce and battles of nations, is another world, one which, heretofore and while the old technology has prevailed, has left this abyssopelagic cosmos undisturbed. “Blind white sea-snakes” live here, slithering in “great grey level plains of ooze.”

But now there is a new trick that men have learned, a new Promethean moment in their history. It is on this otherworldly muck-bottom that the cables which men have laid—and by Kipling’s day submarine telegraph cables were already a highly-developed technology—repose, providing a home for mollusks. This unpeopled deep is not where men ought to go—this is the strong sense of Kipling’s poem overall.

The Biblical motif of the poem continues. It is impossible for me to read the second stanza, about “the womb of the world” at the sea floor, “the tie-ribs of earth” where the planet is mortised and tenoned, without thinking of the first chapter of Genesis, of God’s awful might in calling forth the bottomless waters out of nothingness. Or of the Book of Job, wherein God taunts a member of his puny human creation who dares inquire after the ways of the Almighty:

Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said:
Who is this that wrappeth up sentences in unskillful words? Gird up thy loins like a man; I will ask thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Upon what are its bases grounded? or who laid the corner stone thereof,
When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody?
Who shut up the sea with doors, when it broke forth as issuing out of a womb;
When I made a cloud the garment thereof, and wrapped it in a mist as in swaddling bands?
I set my bounds around it, and made it bars and doors:
And I said: Hitherto thou shalt come, and shalt go no further, and here thou shalt break thy swelling waves.

Hast thou entered the depths of the sea, and walked in the lowest parts of the deep?
(Job 38: 1-11, 16)

Once we have this Biblical context in place, the poem knits together, and in a way very unlike the glib celebration of the British Empire that many scholars understand “The Deep-Sea Cables” to be. This is Godzilla, a shudder at what is going to come out of the “ooze,” the “waste of the ultimate slime” if men keep “whispering” words in the blind, deaf, and dumb deep, “Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun”—where men ought not go. In their hubris, Kipling is saying, men are making a new dispensation, a new “Word” for the world. This is not empire; this is something that men do not understand. And it will cost them dearly in the end.

Kipling senses that the old world of politics and dominion—the ships whose wrecks filter down as rotted powder from above (and Kipling would have been completely aware, of course, that the British Empire rested on naval prowess)—is meaningless in the new age of instantaneous information sharing. Some people have called this network of telegraph cables “the Victorian internet,” which may sound outlandish at first, given the extraordinarily slow (by today’s standards) rates of information transmission of which even the best telegraph cables were capable. But I think the internet metaphor is more apt than might at first appear. It seems that Kipling’s poet’s antennae were sensing, in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” what a later inspired writer, Marshall McLuhan, tried working out in the 1960s—namely, that new modes of communication exert profound, transformative influence on human society. Whispers across cables thrill the pride of man—we are becoming one! But as the second stanza gives way to the third and last, we find this chilling turn: “For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet./They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time.” This is no longer empire. This is now myth, the eternal retelling of the same story of man’s rise and fall.

Who is “Father Time?” In the deep of the underworld, Tartarus, dwelt the old, wild gods, the Titans, imprisoned there by the Olympians, the bright and shining deities (“Zeus” comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to shine”) who banished the horrible Titans to their prison in the bowels of the earth. While there are many theories on the etymology of the name of one of the Titans, Cronus, in Kipling’s day the most common would probably have been “Father Time,” thought to derive from the Greek word chronos. Cronus was identified in Roman mythology with Saturn, the god of bounty. In ancient Rome, the Temple of Saturn was where the imperial treasury was housed.

Cronus as Saturn, Saturn as the god blessing the political dominion of Rome over the known world. But once a line is crossed, the god no longer blesses, but destroys. In the myth of the Titans, all was well until Saturn, Cronus, “Father Time,” thought that his children were going to usurp him, just as he had usurped his father and mother, the heavens and the earth. Fearing this rebellion by his offspring, Cronus ate his children one by one. The god turned on his empire. The Titan devoured what he had brought forth.

Rudyard Kipling was no Boy Scout cheerleader for progress and the British Empire. He was, above all else, a poet, a man with a mystical connection to the incantatory power of words. “The Deep-Sea Cables” represents one of the most prescient and accurate foreshadowing of the dangers which men were stirring up—“the timeless Things” which men were “waken[ing],” the “Power troubl[ing] the Still” which men were disturbing with their globalist chatter in the primordial deep.


Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.


Featured image: “Rudyard Kipling,” by Sir Philip Burne-Jones, painted in 1899.

The Plague As Myth Of The Modern World

We are very pleased to present this excerpt from Camus’ Plague: Myth for our World, by Gene Fendt, and published by St. Augustine’s Press, who continue to publish excellent and important books. And this one is no exception. It is a very fine work of analysis of the current state of the Covid pandemic by way of a classic work of fiction, Albert Camus’ The Plague.

Presently, civilization cannot allow itself to think about being better. First it has to survive. Referencing Thomas Merton’s claim that Camus’ fictional account is actually a “modern myth about the destiny of man” and indication of the blight of “ambiguous and false explanations, interpretations, conventions, justifications, legalizations, evasions which infect our struggling civilization,” Fendt makes the case that “modernity itself is a time of plague.”

Fendt asserts that perhaps “the originality of the modern plague is that most people admit of no symptoms.” This chilling likeness to the asymptomatic Covid-19 victim is but one of the images of what the plague stands for in both the novel and contemporary society. The existentialist fiction of Camus is unwrapped by Fendt’s fidelity to realism and Camus’ motivations as an artist. As Camus calls nihilistic art and culture “barbaric,” Fendt calls the barbarian a natural slave. If we are moved by the forces of powers that be without sense or knowledge of a proper end, we too have been rendered worse than ignorant.

Make sure and pick up your copy of Camus’ Plague: Myth for our World.


The proper understanding of “myth” is not that it is an archaic first attempt at scientific or historical explanation, but that it originates a worldview within which all the actions, stories, explanations (including scientific explanations) and judgements of daily life can and do take place. It is the objective framework within which the society whose myth it is understands their lives; it is what defines and delimits “objective”. The vast majority of mankind does not even think to give what Kant called a transcendental deduction for that framework within in which all their world appears; myth is that framework. One connection between religion and a work of art is just this: each creates a spacing, an “aesthetic distance” from which and within which life and its experiences can be seen as something whole, and being see as a whole, life becomes understandable, we achieve some clarity of vision; it embodies not only what Wordsworth called emotion recollected in tranquility, but emotion and actions set within a clear vision of the whole—a cosmos—within which, in turn, we may understand ourselves and our existence, and experience the engendering of emotions like those of our life.

The myth is that in which we are able to know and to feel our existence. To put things in a more directly philosophical statement myths are the embodied transcendental rational ideal of those in it (the readers, co-religionists, or audience); it is the unconditioned “totality of the conditions for any given condition,” the unconditioned ground within which thought and feeling take place and are understood. It is a mistake to consider what we might call the elements of myth as having “any suitable … employment in concreto.” Without such myths however, “no coherent employment of the understanding” is possible. A myth makes of the world a limited complete whole—an opseos kosmos; and this making so can never be a fact in the world, or even a fact about the world. Its myths are a culture’s means of formation—moral, intellectual, emotional, and whatever we might mean by spiritual. As a rule, what lies outside the myth cannot be seen to have happened, cannot be seen to be going on. The one who tells the myth—supposing there is one: Homer, Moses, Freud, Marx, Hitler, Camus, Rothko—has been formed by, as much as he is forming the story, unless you want to believe in the myth of the great man inventing his own culture.

This last has sometimes been called the myth of patriarchy, though autochthony would perhaps be the more adequate name of the general form of this myth, depending upon which of the two matriarchy is considered the alternative of, for matriarchy, too, is a myth. This sense of myth does not only apply to those stories, such as Homer’s, which we usually intend, but it covers also Nietzsche’s sense when he suggests that we still believe in the gods because we believe in grammar, for our grammar, because it has substantives and verbs, makes us still look for that mythical “subject” the self whenever there is a feeling or thought or action; or as he suggests—perfectly in line with Kant’s discussion—because we think “world” we must also think “God”. That he has myths is symptomatic of a being whose knowledge is limited.

Thus, the critique of myth depends on a different spacing, that is, a different myth granting the aesthetic distance upon the “what is the form” or “what had been formed”—the myth—of the first culture or epoch. So, we might ask of someone like Sir James Frazer—“what is that cultural myth from which you investigate the myths of ‘primitive’ cultures?’” Seeing our point, he would confess that it is the myth of empirical science, and undoubtedly chuckle, for everyone here knows that empirical science is not a myth—right? And Nietzsche’s point might not be the insane one of attempting to speak without any grammar whatsoever, but a warning about the wrong way to think about things, into which we are led by, let us call them, the facts of our grammar. In such a case we would find him aligned with Wittgenstein, who is a much less explosive, but no less insightful writer of German sentences. In every such case we are taking the myths as if they refer and have meaning in the same way that all those things that appear in them (the whole world—material and social) refer or have meaning, mistaking that through which and in which we understand to be the same sort of thing as that which we understand (or wish to understand).

Sophie Bourgault reports such a myth which Camus told about himself and his work as an author while in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. He said that he intended there to be three layers to his work: “absurdity, revolt, and love.” The last was to be the center of his reflections in the coming works; thus, after his sudden death, we are left “with an unfinished trilogy”. In the preface to the second edition of his youthful (1937) book of essays, The Wrong Side and the Right Side, published the year after his visit to Stockholm (1958), Camus tells a story of his work which aligns with this layering, for he finds “more love in these awkward pages than in all those that have followed” (LCE 6). He hopes, in the near future “to construct the work I dream of… it will speak of a certain form of love” (LCE 15). These statements are the best sign that Camus is, near the time of this re-printing, taking a new, at least more clearly defined, aesthetic distance on himself and his work, framing it as a coherent life-story under the aegis of these three “stages”.

I propose taking it to be true, that is, the framework that allows us to see more truly; but it also seems quite clear that Camus has been learning from his own work, and one thing he has learned is that, seen truly, love seems to have been “the backdrop of everything.” Or perhaps the center sphere of several, growing like an onion, but written and read—and lived?—from the outside in; perhaps only having lived and written through what is already behind him does he see what the living, growing center has been all along. In the reading of Camus’ own myths it is not evident, within the absurdity of Sisyphus, or within The Rebel, that love is “the backdrop to everything.” Nor the center either. Indeed, love seems to have a different significance—if it has any, if we treat each of the previous stages as the expression of Camus’ myth at the time of its writing. But perhaps “like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying” (MS 8). Perhaps, then, his late myth about his work is the true confession about his life, as well as his work. Absurdity, rebellion, love—it’s a life trajectory Augustine would recognize, as well as many other sinners. How shall we ask if such a myth is true? From what mythic standpoint could we judge?

This latterly told myth of his writing life is the confession of that world within which he wished his work to be understood, within which he understood himself now to have always been working, within which he thought his work could best work—or did, does, and will do its best work—for us. Those earlier works, taken for themselves—as their own autochthonous myths—were partial, of severely limited focus. Lucidity about his own life and experience demanded that he be living in another myth, a framework distinct from those—each of which brought its own kind of fame and trouble in its day. For the sake of understanding this novel as myth of the modern world it is worth recalling Camus’ earlier “stages”—those which led into “love.” Let us consider each of them in turn, given Camus’ own late told myth, “stories that could be true,” of characters who might instantiate them—but rightly seen only if oriented to this proper centering: love.


Gene Fendt is the Albertus Magnus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska, Kearney.


Featured image: “The Plague,” by Arnold Böcklin, painted in 1898.

Rereading Orwell’s 1984

Here is an excerpt, through the kind courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, from an absorbing study, Slave State. Rereading Orwell’s 1984, by David Lowenthal, in which present society is transposed onto Orwell’s dystopia, in order to illustrate “how the quest for a perfect society led instead to the worst.”

What many understand by instinct, Lowenthal here articulates in clear terms, using the political prophesy of this no longer futuristic work, to describe our descent into enslavement. But Orwell provides no positive political message, argues Lowenthal, but there is a positive moral message that is nearly always overlooked by commentators, which the reader slowly discovers upon reading this excellent work: “With the decline of Christianity’s influence in forming the moral sense of the West and the concomitant increase in power hunger, wielding instruments born of modern enlightenment, what mankind most needed was moral guidance, conveyed not abstractly, through philosophy, but in such a way as to grip the whole soul.”

Lowenthal echoes Orwell when he says, “we have abandoned inculcating good citizenship, higher ideals and a sense of personal worth in the schools, encouraging instead an aimless low-level conformist ‘individuality’ just waiting to be harnessed together and directed. Given these conditions, can we be sure we have left the conditions to the horrors of 1984 far behind as mere fiction?”

Make sure to pick up a copy and share it with you family and friends.


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I first learned of George Orwell through the letters he wrote from London for The Partisan Review during World War II. I loved him then and I love him still. Whatever he did had the touch of an independent mind and a noble soul. Nobody could write more clearly. Nobody felt more deeply and sincerely for the underdog. Nobody had as much to say about the problems pressing humanity. No one did more to appreciate the achievements of modernity while facing its grim realities. Nobody made a greater effort to rise above the petty orthodoxies of the left toward a better general appreciation of liberal society and his own England. None of the literary people gave nearly as much independent thought to the standards that should guide human life and must guide it in the dark days ahead.

1984 was published in 1949, shortly after Orwell’s death. For decades it was considered the classic portrayal of communist totalitarianism and taught in the schools as such. After the collapse of the Soviet Union its popularity waned—not even to be revived by Solzhenitsyn’s description of the horrors of Soviet communism. Solzhenitsyn wrote as a Russian patriot and a Christian, Orwell as a democratic socialist who shared the vision of Western liberal enlightenment and was perplexed, as much as he was appalled, by the growth of totalitarianism and the totalitarian mentality in the twentieth century. We can see why communism absorbed his thought much more than Nazism or fascism. While all three had much in common, communism claimed to be the final extension of reason in the name of liberty and equality—i.e., in the name of human brotherhood rather than drastic inequality. How, at the very moment when science and technology promised the final liberation of mankind, could communism turn mankind toward its universal, complete, and perpetual enslavement, culminating in an earthly hell rather than an earthly paradise?

1984 is an attempt to answer this question. But, beyond this, and at least equally important, it is an attempt to guide mankind in the dark days ahead—the dark ages ahead—which, in the aftermath of atomic war, Orwell considered not simply possible but most likely. There is no positive political message in 1984: the closest to it comes in the appendix on Newspeak, where the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, etc.”) is used to demonstrate language from the pre-revolutionary world that cannot be translated into Newspeak. But there is a positive moral message—one often missed by commentators because, unlike Goldstein’s extensive treatise on oligarchical collectivism, it is woven into the fabric of the novel as a whole—into its characters, their words, their actions. Through the movement of the novel, Orwell tries to impress on the passions, hearts, and minds of his readers the most valuable lessons concerning the right and wrong way to live. With the decline of Christianity’s influence in forming the moral sense of the West and the concomitant increase in power hunger, wielding instruments born of modern enlightenment, what mankind most needed was moral guidance, conveyed not abstractly, through philosophy, but in such a way as to grip the whole soul.

This moral teaching, this “humanist ethic,” as Orwell calls it elsewhere, was his greatest bequest to mankind. It sought to care for intellectuals and masses alike, for the heroic and the common, for the aristocratic “Winston” and the democratic “Smith”—as the name of his protagonist itself suggests. Based on the study of human nature and the discovery of man’s good in his nature, it tries to convey a palpable knowledge of good and evil and thus to assure the passing on of the human heritage from hand to hand or mouth to mouth should the threatening blackness engulf us. Understanding this teaching along with the deeper causes of the tyranny is the prime objects of this study, consequent to which—apart from a brief opening sketch—only minimal attention will be given to the details of Orwell’s life or to those many writings that do not bear directly on our subject.

Orwell was a literary man of the left, an intellectual but not an ordinary one. He suffered from the rupture between literature and philosophy that afflicts both to this day and, while few knew modern literature better, he had little taste for the abstractions of philosophy and knew little of the ancient or modern political philosophers who could have helped him most. Yet his thinking points toward philosophy, needs it for its beginnings, development, and completion. Properly under- stood it can even serve as a bridge to philosophy, and that’s how I regard it here. But first we must be sure we see the real Orwell, the full Orwell, and that requires some doing. He was a much more systematic thinker than he is given credit for— an adverse opinion easily come by since he wrote so many different things without ever systematically summing up his thought.

I have tried to examine these writings under relevant heads to ascertain his moral and political views by the time he wrote 1984. And because there’s no substitute for his own words, I have cited passages copiously, often from writings the reader might find it difficult to obtain for himself. As we wit- ness the intellectual process by which Orwell ultimately abandons the Marxism with which he began, we come upon countless themes and issues of great currency today on which I shall not myself dwell, leaving it to the thoughtful reader to consider these ties to the contemporary. My own comments will occur briefly from time to time and are mostly suggestive in nature.

Lest we be tempted to dismiss Orwell’s account of the totalitarian regime in 1984 as of merely historical interest, let us ask ourselves whether the conditions lending support to that regime have completely disappeared. First, regarding the work’s premise of nuclear war, has that possibility declined or in- creased with the current and prospective proliferation of nu- clear might? Do we know what human life would be like in its aftermath? Have we not already discovered means of wreaking havoc even worse than the atom bomb itself? Is not Communist China consciously preparing to overtake, overcome, and perhaps overthrow our liberal society? At the same time, a much greater centralization of power has occurred here. As for devices watching and controlling us, we have already gone be- yond the capacities used so coercively in 1984. Nor can we re- ally think the totalitarian mentality a thing of the past, with so much evidence to the contrary regularly displayed in so many ways—on college campuses, at rock concerts, in ordinary political life.

The massing of people in cities and the grip of modern industry, the spread of drugs, and wealth itself have taken their toll and left us more prone to the siren calls of false hero- ism. There’s much more crowd behavior, much less independent thought. The sense of personal worth, virtue, and privacy itself has been eroded by the mass media. With the decline of religious beliefs and feelings and out of narrow self-interest many have even come to welcome late-term abortions. With the help of technical advances the sexual impulse, already widely emancipated and promoted by the purveyors of intellect as they battered down the walls of religion, wreaked havoc on the family and left rootless individuals in their place.

Many of the educated, influenced by relativism in its many forms, have lost confidence in the liberal principles that in the world of 1984 have been completely effaced. This is especially true on college campuses, where faculty, administration, and students collaborate in fostering a radical contempt for their own country. At the same time we have abandoned inculcating good citizenship, higher ideals, and a sense of personal worth in the schools, encouraging instead an aimless low-level conformist “individuality” just waiting to be harnessed together and directed. Given these conditions, can we be sure we have left the conditions leading to the horrors of 1984 far behind as mere fiction?


David Lowenthal is retired professor of political philosophy. He is author of Present Dangers, Shakespeare’s Thought, and The Mind and Art of Abraham Lincoln, Philosopher Statesman.


Is Academic Satire Possible Anymore?

Amis, Bradbury and Lodge, very different as they were, all now seem like products of other, gentler ages, ones in which authors sought to offer satire with the shaming that hypocrisy deserves, while finding humour, and very much of it, in the varied adventures of protagonists and others. And so still with the more mordant Coming from Behind (1983) as Howard Jacobson lay bare Wrottesley Poly and some of its members. The black-comedy A Very Peculiar Practice (1986, 1988), became very much more biting in its second series as the American Vice-Chancellor took over and students were removed, with the last episode entitled “Death Of A University.” The writer, Andrew Davies, had lectured at Coventry College of Education and then the University of Warwick. Here, however, it was commercialisation, notably globalisation, that brought a traditional university to its abrupt close.

That topic could still be handled in fiction, but how can writers cope with the current evil confluence of the toxic effluvia of faddish management with woke-ish staff and students.

Set in fictional Pembroke University, the American television series The Chair (2021) sought with some success to handle issues of diversity, gender and behaviour, but stayed off a number of the delights of the modern university, such as the sheer aggression that explode these envelopes, the stress affecting so many staff and students, and the particular delectations of fighting the world’s battles on campuses let alone the “trans” and others policy of supposed aggressions.

In Britain, America and elsewhere, each week brings a new case of intimidation of staff, with administrators, “colleagues,” and students all joining to deal out the shit. Sorry if that offends you, but only excremental imagery on the eighteenth-century pattern captures the poisoning of the culture as well as the destruction of so many individual careers, and the deadening, nervous pall of concern that pervades universities, rather like a toxic smog.

ABBA in “Waterloo” proposed that “the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself,” but that is certainly not the case for modern academe in Britain or America. The present situation is more pervasive, invasive and brutal than the Cold War in these countries.

So, what becomes of academic satire? One approach is simply to print some of the nonsense emanating from universities. It is more ridiculous than most satirists could devise, and frees the latter from the danger of vilification through invention. Particular humour of a mordant type attaches to the idiocies surrounding decolonising curricula and enforcing authoritarian notions of equality and diversity. Racism directed against whites underlies some of the discussion of white “privilege.”

What is less clear to outsiders is how this world impacts on individuals; indeed how it provokes the full range of human action from bravery to cowardice via complicity. How shocked can you be when you encounter the latter on the part of those you like and/or admire? So universities as setting for tragedy in any fictional form.

But that can overlap with satire: academics and students ignoring refugees from horrible wars, notably at present in Ethiopia so that they can intone against Rhodes’ statue. Far better to hurl opprobrium at white on black violence in the past than to respond to black-on-black violence.

Tragedy and satire. That, indeed, is the present situation. False values can always attract the satirist. The comic element is very rare and even then very black, if I am allowed with my name to say that, but satire does not have to be funny. What it should do is hit the target, and universities provide so very many.


Jeremy Black is a British historian, and a prolific author. His most recent books include, Military Strategy: A Global History, War and Its Causes, Introduction to Global Military History: 1775 to the Present Day, and Imperial Legacies. The British Empire Around the World.


Featured image: “A young man examined for entrance to university,” an etching by K. Bretherton, after Henry William Bunbury, published May 23, 1799.

On Humour And Satire

This excerpt is from Essays in Satire, by Ronald A. Knox, which was published in 1930. Monsignor Knox (888-1957) was a widely respected English Catholic theologian, writer, thinker, and radio broadcaster. Among his many contributions to knowledge and the world of ideas is his translation of the entire Bible (known as the Knox Bible). He also famously wrote crime fiction and began the Sherlockian tradition of the “Grand Game,” with the publication of, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” in 1911, when he was 23 years old and still a student at Oxford, and which we have also now published.

Famously, on January 16th, 1926, he presented Broadcasting the Barricades, which we have republished, which was a “live” radio coverage of a supposed a revolution in London, with an attack on the Houses of Parliament the destruction of Big Ben, and the hanging of the Minister of Traffic as well as other mayhe, m. It set off a nation-wide panic. This broadcast became the model for Orson Wells’ no-less famous “War of the Worlds.”


Whoever shall tum up in a modern encyclopaedia the article on hummingbirds—whether from a disinterested curiosity about these brightly-coloured creatures, or from the more commonplace motive of identifying a clue in a crossword—will find a curious surprise awaiting him at the end of it. He will find that the succeeding paragraph deals with the geological formation known as a humus; or if his encyclopaedia be somewhat more exhaustive, with the quaintly-named genius of Humperdinck. What will excite his speculation is, of course, the fact that no attempt is made by his author to deal with humour.

Humour, for the encyclopaedist, is non-existent; and that means that no book has ever been written on the subject of humour; else the ingenious Caledonian who retails culture to us at the rate of five guineas a column would inevitably have boiled it down for us ere this. The great history of Humour in three volumes, dedicated by permission to the Bishop of Much Wenlock, still remains to be written. And that fact, in its turn, is doubly significant. It means, in the first place, that humour, in our sense of the word, is a relatively modem phenomenon; the idea of submitting it to exhaustive analysis did not, for example, present itself to the patient genius of John Stuart Mill. And at the same time it is an uncommonly awkward and elusive subject to tackle, or why have we no up-to-date guide to it from the hand of Mr. Arnold Bennett?

Assuredly this neglect is not due to any want of intrinsic importance. For humour, frown upon it as you will, is nothing less than a fresh window of the soul. Through that window we see, not indeed a different world, but the familiar world of our experience distorted as if by the magic of some tricksy sprite. It is a plate-glass window, which turns all our earnest, toiling fellow-mortals into figures of fun. If a man awoke to it of a sudden, it would be an enlightenment of his vision no less real than if a man who had hitherto seen life only in black and grey should be suddenly gifted with the experience of colour. More, even, than this; the sense of humour is a man’s inseparable playmate, allowing him, for better or worse, no solitude anywhere. In crowded railway-carriages, in the lonely watches of a sleepless night, even in the dentist’s chair, the sense of humour is at your side, full of elfin suggestions. Do you go to Church? He will patter up the aisle alongside of you, never more at home, never more alert, than when the spacious silences of worship and the solemn purple of prelates enjoins reverence. I could become lyrical, if I had time, over the sense of humour, what it does for men and how it undoes them, what comfort lies in its companionship, and what menace. Enough to say that if I had the writing of an encyclopaedia the humming-birds should be made to look foolish.

Humour has been treated, perhaps, twice in literature; once in the preface to Meredith’s Egoist, and once in Mr. Chesterton’s book, The Napoleon of Netting Hill. What it is still remains a mystery. Easy enough to distinguish it from its neighbours in the scale of values: with wit, for example, it has nothing to do. For wit is first and last a matter of expression. Latin, of all languages, is the best vehicle of wit, the worst of humour. You cannot think a witty thought, even, without thinking in words. But humour can be wordless; there are thoughts that lie too deep for laughter itself.

In this essay I mean to treat humour as it compares with and contrasts with satire, a more delicate distinction. But first let us make an attempt, Aristotle-wise, to pin down the thing itself with some random stab of definition. Let us say that the sphere of humour is, predominantly, Man and his activities, considered in circumstances so incongruous, so unexpectedly incongruous, as to detract from their human dignity. Thus, the prime source of humour is a madman or a drunkard; either of these wears the semblance of a man without enjoying the full use of that rational faculty which is man’s definition. A foreigner, too, is always funny: he dresses, but does not dress right; makes sounds, but not the right sounds. A man falling down on a frosty day is funny, because he has unexpectedly abandoned that upright walk which is man’s glory as a biped. All these things are funny, of course, only from a certain angle; not, for example, from the angle of ninety degrees, which is described by the man who falls down. But amusement is habitually derived from such situations; and in each case it is a human victim that is demanded for the sacrifice.

It is possible, in the mythological manner to substitute an animal victim, but only if the animal be falsely invested with the attributes of humanity. There is nothing at all funny about a horse falling down. A monkey making faces, a cat at play, amuse us only because we feign to ourselves that the brute is rational; to that fiction we are accustomed from childhood. Only Man has dignity; only man, therefore, can be funny. Whether there could have been humour even in human fortunes but for the Fall of Adam is a problem which might profitably have been discussed by St. Thomas in his Summa Theologiae, but was omitted for lack of space.

The question is raised (as the same author would say) whether humour is in its origins indecent. And at first sight it would appear yes. For the philosopher says that the ludicrous is a division of the disgraceful. And the gods in Homer laugh at the predicament of Ares and Aphrodite in the recital of the bard Demodocus. But on second thoughts it is to be reflected that the song of Demodocus is, by common consent of the critics, a late interpolation in Homer; and the first mention of laughter in the classics is rather the occasion on which the gods laughed to see the lame Hephaestus panting as he limped up and down the hall. Once more, a lame man is funny because he enjoys, like the rest of us, powers of locomotion, but employs them wrong. His gait is incongruous—not unexpectedly so, indeed, for the gods had witnessed this farce daily for centuries; but the gods were children, and the simplest farces always have the best run.

No doubt the psycho-analysts will want us to believe that all humour has its origin in indecency, and, for aught I know, that whenever we laugh we are unconsciously thinking of something obscene. But, in fact, the obscene, as its name implies, is an illegitimate effect of humour. There is nothing incongruous in the existence of sex and the other animal functions; the incongruity lies merely in the fact of mentioning them. It is not human dignity that is infringed in such cases, but a human convention of secrecy. The Stock Exchange joke, like most operations on the Stock Exchange, is essentially artificial; it does not touch the real values of things at all. In all the generalizations which follow it must be understood that the humour of indecency is being left out of account.

Yet there is truth in the philosopher’s assertion that the ludicrous is a division of the disgraceful, in this sense, that in the long run every joke makes a fool, of somebody; it must have, as I say, a human victim. This fact is obscured by the frequency with which jokes, especially modern jokes, are directed against their own authors. The man who makes faces to amuse a child is, objectively, making a fool of himself; and that whole genre of literary humour of which Happy Thoughts, The Diary of a Nobody, and the Eliza books are the best-known examples, depends entirely on the fact that the author is making a fool of himself. In all humour there is loss of dignity somewhere, virtue has gone out of somebody. For there is no inherent humour in things; wherever there is a joke it is Man, the half-angel, the half-beast, who is somehow at the bottom of it. I am insisting upon this point because, on a careless analysis, one might be disposed to imagine that the essence of satire is to be a joke directed against somebody. That definition, clearly, will be inadequate, if our present analysis of humour in general be accepted.

I have said that humour is, for the most part, a modem phenomenon. It would involve a very long argument, and some very far-reaching considerations, if we attempted to prove this thesis of humour as a fact in life. Let us be more modest, and be content for the present to say that the humorous in literature is for the most part a modem phenomenon.

Let us go back to our starting-point, and imagine one pursuing his researches about humming-birds into the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797. He skims through a long article on Mr. David Hume, faced by an attractive but wholly unreliable portrait of the hippopotamus. Under “Humming-bird” he will only read the words “See Trochilus.” But immediately following, he will find the greater part of a column under the title “Humour.” Most of it deals with the jargon of a psychology now obsolete, and perhaps fanciful, though not more fanciful, I think, than the psychological jargon of our own day. But at the end he will find some valuable words on humour as it is contrasted with wit. “Wit expresses something that is more designed, concerted, regular, and artificial; humour, something that is more wild, loose, extravagant, and fantastical; something which comes upon a man by fits, which he can neither command nor restrain, and which is not perfectly consistent with true politeness. Humour, it has been said, is often more diverting than wit; yet a man of wit is as much above a man of humour, as a gentleman is above a buffoon; a buffoon, however, will often divert more than a gentleman. The Duke of Buckingham, however, makes humour to be all in all,” and so on.

“Not perfectly consistent with true politeness”—oh, admirable faith of the eighteenth century, even in its decline! “The Duke of Buckingham, however—a significant exception. It seems possible that the reign of the Merry Monarch saw a false dawn of the sense of humour. If so, it was smothered for a full century afterwards by an overpowering incubus of whiggery. The French Revolution had come and gone, and yet humour was for the age of Burke “not perfectly consistent with true politeness.”

One is tempted, as I say, to maintain that the passing of the eighteenth century is an era in human history altogether, since with the nineteenth century humour, as an attitude towards life, begins. The tone of Disraeli about politics, the tone of Richard Hurrell Froude about all the external part of religion, seems to me quite inconceivable in any earlier age. But let us confine ourselves to literature, and say that humour as a force in literature is struggling towards its birth in Jane Austen, and hardly achieves its full stature till Calverley. I know that there are obvious exceptions. There is humour in Aristophanes and in Petronius; there is humour in Shakespeare, though not as much of it as one would expect; humour in Sterne, too, and in Sheridan. But if you set out to mention the great names of antiquity which are naturally connected with humorous writing, you will find that they are all the names of satirists. Aristophanes in great part, Lucian, Juvenal, Martial, Blessed Thomas More, Cervantes, Rabelais, Butler, Molière, La Fontaine, Swift—humour and satire are, before the nineteenth century, almost interchangeable terms. Humour in art had begun in the eighteenth century, but it had begun with Hogarth! Put a volume by Barrie or Milne into the hands of Edmund Burke—could he have begun to understand it?

You can corroborate the fact of this growth in humour by a complementary fact about our modem age, the decline of naïveté. If you come to think of it, the best laughs you will get out of the old classics are laughs which the author never meant to put there. Of all the ancients, none can be so amusing as Herodotus, but none, surely, had less sense of humour. It is a rare grace, like all the gratiae gratis datae, this humour of the naif. Yet it reaches its climax on the very threshold of the nineteenth century; next to Herodotus, surely, comes James Boswell. Since the dawn of nineteenth century humour, you will find unconscious humour only in bad writers, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and the rest. Humour kills the naif, nor could any great writer of today recapture, if he would, Boswell’s splendid unselfconsciousness.

Under correction, then, I am maintaining that literature before the nineteenth century has no conscious humour apart from satire. I must now pass on to an impression which all of us have, but an impression so presumptuous that we seldom have the courage to put it into words. It is this, that humour, apart from satire, belongs to the English-speaking peoples alone. I say, the English-speaking peoples, a cumbrous and an unreal division of mankind. But, thank God, you cannot bring any preposterous ethnographical fictions in here. Not even Houston Stewart Chamberlain ever ventured to congratulate the Germans on their sense of humour; not even the Dean of St. Paul’s will dare to tell us that the sense of humour is Nordic. The facts speak for themselves. Satire still flourishes on the Continent; Anatole France was no unworthy citizen of the country of Voltaire. There is satire, too, among the Northern peoples; I believe that if I expressed my private opinion as to who was the world’s greatest satirist I should reply, Hans Andersen. Only in spots, of course; but the man who wrote the Ugly Duckling and the Darning Needle and the Story of the Emperor’s New Clothes seems to me to have a finer sense of the intrinsic ludicrousness of mankind than Swift himself.

Satire is international, as it is of all ages; but where shall humour be found, apart from satire, on the Continent of Europe? Who, unless he were a laugher at the malicious or the obscene, ever picked up the translation of a foreign book in search of a good laugh? Who ever found a good joke in a Continental illustrated paper? Cleverness of drawing abounds, but the captions beneath the drawings are infantile. I have seen a Swedish illustrated supplement, and I do not believe there was a single item in it which would have been accepted by Comic Cuts. I am told that the humorous drama of modem France forms a complete exception to this statement of the facts. I am content to believe it; there must, of course, be exceptions. I put forward the rule as a rule.

Some, no doubt, on a hasty analysis, would limit the field still further by saying that humour is purely English. And it would be easy to defend this contention by pointing to the fact that the English enjoy their joke very largely at the expense of their neighbours. Nothing belongs more decisively to the English-speaking world than the anecdote. We are for ever telling stories, and how many of those stories are about a Scot (we call it a Scotchman), an Irishman, a Jew, or an American? But this, if our definition of humour was a sound one, is in the nature of the case. A foreigner is funny, because he is like ourselves only different. A Scot or an Irishman is funny to the Englishman because he is almost exactly like himself, only slightly different. He talks English as his native tongue, only with an incorrect accent; what could possibly be funnier? A Scot is more funny than a Frenchman just as a monkey is more amusing than a dog; he is nearer the real thing.

But, in fact, all such judgments have been distorted beyond recognition by national hypocrisy. It is the English tradition that the Irish are a nation brimming over with humour, quite incapable of taking anything seriously. Irish people are in the habit of saying things which English people think funny. Irish people do not think them funny in the least. It follows, from the English point of view, that Ireland is a nation of incorrigible humorists, all quite incapable of governing themselves.

The Scot, on the other hand, has an unfortunate habit of governing the English, and the English, out of revenge, have invented the theory that the Scot has no sense of humour. The Scot cannot have any sense of humour, because he is very careful about money, and drinks whisky where ordinary people drink beer. All the stories told against the Scottish nation are, I am told, invented in Aberdeen, and I partly believe it. There is (if a denationalized Ulsterman like myself may make the criticism) a pawkiness about all the stories against Scotland which betrays their Caledonian origin. The fact is that the Scottish sense of humour differs slightly from the English sense of humour, but I am afraid I have no time to indicate the difference. There is humour in the country of Stevenson and Barrie; and if the joke is often against Scotland, what better proof could there be that it is humour, and not satire?

Whatever may be said of Americans in real life, it is certain that their literature has humour. Personally I do not think that the Americans are nearly as proud as they ought to be of this fact; Mark Twain ought to be to the American what Bums is to the Scot, and rather more. The hall-mark of American humour is its pose of illiteracy. All the American humorists spend their time making jokes against themselves. Artemus Ward pretended that he was unable even to spell. Mark Twain pretended that he had received no education beyond spelling, and most of his best remarks are based on this affectation of ignorance. “What is your bête noire?” asked the revelations-of-character book, and Mark Twain replied, “What is my which?” “He spelt it Vinci, but pronounced it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce”—that is perhaps one of the greatest jokes of literature, but the whole point of it lies in a man pretending to be worse educated than he really is.

Mr. Leacock, as a rule, amuses by laughing at himself. America, on the other hand, has very little to show in the way of satire. Lowell was satirical, in a rather heavy vein, and Mr. Leacock is satirical occasionally, in a way that seems to me purely English. I want to allude to that later on; for the present let it be enough to note that the Americans, like the English and the Scots, do possess a literary tradition of non-satirical humour.

Thus far, we have concluded that the humorous in literature is the preserve of that period which succeeds the French Revolution, and of those peoples which speak the English language under its several denominations; unless by the word humour you understand “satire.”

It is high time, obviously, that we attempted some definition of what ‘satire is, or at least of the marks by which it can be distinguished from non-satirical humour. It is clear from the outset that the author who laughs at himself, unless the self is a deliberately assumed one, is not writing satire. Happy Thoughts and The Diary of a Nobody may be what you will; they are not satire. The Tramp Abroad is not satire; My Lady Nicotine is not satire. For in all these instances the author, with a charity worthy of the Saints—and indeed, St. Philip Neri’s life is full of this kind of charity—makes a present of himself to his reader as a laughingstock.

In satire, on the contrary, the writer always leaves it to be assumed that he himself is immune from all the follies and the foibles which he pillories. To take an obvious instance, Dickens is no satirist when he introduces you to Mr. Winkle, because there is not the smallest reason to suppose that Dickens would have handled a gun better than Mr. Winkle. But when Dickens introduces you to Mr. Bumble he is a satirist at once, for it is perfectly obvious that Dickens would have handled a porridge-ladle better than Mr. Bumble did. The humorist runs with the hare; the satirist hunts with the hounds.

There is, indeed, less contempt in satire than in irony. Irony is content to describe men exactly as they are, to accept them professedly, at their own valuation, and then to laugh up its sleeve. It falls outside the limits of humorous literature altogether; there is Irony in Plato, there is irony in the Gospels; Mr. Galsworthy is an ironist, but few people have ever laughed over Mr. Galsworthy.

Satire, on the contrary, borrows its weapons from the humorist; the satirized figure must be made to leap through the hoops of improbable adventure and farcical situation. It is all the difference between The Egoist and Don Quixote. Yet the laughter which satire provokes has malice in it always; we want to dissociate ourselves from the victim ; to let the lash that curls round him leave our withers unwrung. It is not so with humour: not so (for instance) with the work of an author who should have been mentioned earlier, Mr. P. G. Woodhouse. To read the adventures of Bertie Wooster as if they were a satire on Bertie Wooster, or even on the class to which Bertie Wooster may be supposed to belong, is to misread them in a degree hardly possible to a German critic. The reader must make himself into Bertie Wooster in order to enjoy his Jeeves, just as he must make himself into Eliza’s husband in order to enjoy his Eliza. Nobody can appreciate the crackers of humour unless he is content to put on his fool’s cap with the rest of the party.

What, then, is the relation between humour and satire? Which is the parent, and which the child? Which is the normal organ, and which the morbid growth? I said just now that satire borrows its weapons from the humorist, and that is certainly the account most of us would be prepared to give of the matter off-hand. Most things in life, we reflect, have their comic side as well as their serious side; and the good-humoured man is he who is content to see the humorous side of things even when the joke is against himself. The comic author, by persistently abstracting from the serious side of things, contrives to build up a world of his own, whose figures are all grotesques, whose adventures are the happy adventures of farce. Men fight, but only with foils; men suffer, but only suffer indignities; it is all a pleasant nursery tale, a relief to be able to turn to it when your mind is jaded with the sour facts of real life. Such, we fancy, is the true province of the Comic Muse; and satire is an abuse of the function.

The satirist is like one who should steal his little boy’s water-pistol and load it with vitriol, and so walk abroad flourishing it in men’s faces. A treacherous fellow, your satirist. He will beguile the leisure of an Athenian audience, needing some rest, Heaven knows, from the myriad problems of a relentless war with powerful neighbours, by putting on a little play called The Birds. Capital; we shall enjoy that. Two citizens of Athens, so the plot runs, take wings to themselves and set out to build a bird city, remote from the daily instance of this subnubilar world. Excellent! That is just what we wanted, a relief for tired brains! And then, the fellow has tricked us, it proves, after all! His city in the clouds is, after all, only a parody of an Athenian colony, and the ceremonies which attend its inauguration are a burlesque, in the worst possible taste, of Athenian colonial policy. We came here for a holiday, and we are being treated to a sermon instead! No wonder the Athenian audiences often refused the first prize to Aristophanes.

Skip twenty-one centuries, and find yourself in the times of the early Georges. There has been a great vogue, of late, for descriptions of travel in strange countries; and now (they are saying in the coffee-houses) the Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, has written a burlesque of these travel narratives, about countries that never existed at ail—the ingenious dog! And then, as we read, it dawns upon us suddenly that Lilliput and Brobdingnag are not, after all, so distant, so imaginary; in fact, we have never really got away from the England of the Georges at all. The spirit of satire has overlooked us, like a wicked fairy, and turned the milk of human kindness sour as we churned it.

My present thesis, not dogmatically asserted but rather thrown out as if for discussion, is that this way of viewing the relations between humour and satire is a perversion of history. To think of satire as a particular direction which humour may happen to take, a particular channel into which humour may be diverted, is to neglect, surely, the broad facts as we have stated them above. Humour is of an age, satire of all ages; humour is of one particular civilization, satire of all countries. Is it not, then, more reasonable to suppose that satire is a normal function of the human genius, and humour that has no satire in it a perversion of the function, a growth away from the normal? That our sense of the ridiculous is not, in its original application, a child’s toy at all, but a weapon, deadly in its efficacy, entrusted to us for exposing the shams and hypocrisies of the world? The tyrant may arm himself in triple mail, may surround himself with bodyguards, may sow his kingdom with a hedge of spies, so that free speech is crushed and criticism muzzled. Nay, worse, he may so debauch the consciences of his subjects with false history and with sophistical argument that they come to believe him the thing he gives himself out for, a creature half-divine, a heaven-sent deliverer. One thing there is that he still fears; one anxiety still bids him turn this way and that to scan the faces of his slaves. He is afraid of laughter. The satirist stands there, like the little child in the procession when the Emperor walked through the capital in his famous new clothes; his is the tiny voice that interprets the consciousness of a thousand onlookers: “But, Mother, he has no clothes on at all!”

Satire has a wider scope, too. It is born to scourge the persistent and ever-recurrent follies of the human creature as such. And, for anybody who has the humility to realize that it is aimed at him, and not merely at his neighbours, satire has an intensely remedial effect; it purifies the spiritual system of man as nothing else that is human can possibly do. Thus, every young man who is in love should certainly read The Egoist (there would be far less unhappiness in marriage if they all did), and no schoolmaster should ever begin the scholastic year without re-reading Mr. Bradby’s Lanchester Tradition, to remind him that he is but dust.

Satire is thus an excellent discipline for the satirized: whether it is a good thing for the satirist is more open to question. Facit indignatio versum; it is seldom that the impetus to write satire comes to a man except as the result of a disappointment. Since disappointment so often springs from love, it is not to be wondered at that satirists have ever dealt unkindly with woman, from the days of Simonides of Amorgos, who compared woman with more than thirty different kinds of animals, in every case to her disadvantage. A pinched, warped fellow, as a rule, your satirist. It is misery that drives men to laughter. It is bad humour that encourages men first to be humorous. And it is, I think, when good-humoured men pick up this weapon of laughter, and, having no vendettas to work off with it, begin tossing it idly at a mark, that humour without satire takes its origin.

In a word, humour without satire is, strictly speaking, a perversion, the misuse of a sense. Laughter is a deadly explosive which was meant to be wrapped up in the cartridge of satire, and so, aimed unerringly at its appointed target, deal its salutary wound humour without satire is a flash in the pan; it may be pretty to look at, but it is, in truth, a waste of ammunition. Or, if you will, humour is satire that has run to seed; trained no longer by an artificial process, it has lost the virility of its stock. It is port from the wood, without the depth and mystery of its vintage rivals. It is a burning-glass that has lost its focus; a passenger, pulling no weight in the up-stream journey of life; meat that has had the vitamins boiled out of it; a clock without hands. The humorist, in short, is a satirist out of a job; he does not fit into the scheme of things; the world passes him by.

The pure humorist is a man without a message. He can preach no gospel, unless it be the gospel that nothing matters; and that in itself is a foolish theme, for if nothing matters, what does it matter whether it matters or not? Mr. Wodehouse is an instance in point, Mr. Leacock nearly so, though there is a story in Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich about the amalgamation of two religious bodies on strictly commercial lines, which comes very close to pure satire. Barry Pain is a humorist who is seldom at his best when he attempts satire; the same fate dogged Mark Twain, though I think he would have liked to be a satirist. Mr. A. A. Milne is in a similar case, and so indeed are all the modem Punch writers by the terms (you might say) of their contract. No contrast is more surprising than the contrast in atmosphere between the letterpress of Punch before 1890 and its letterpress since. The old Punches are full of very bad satire; there is hardly anything else in them; it is all on the same sort of level as John Bull in its Bottomley days—anti-aristocratic, and-foreign, and-clerical, very much like some rag of the Boulevards. Today, it is the home of superbly finished humour—humour cultivated as a fine art. But satire is absent.

Some of the greatest humorists have halted between two destinies, and as a rule have been lost to satire. Sir W. S. Gilbert, a rather unsuccessful satirist in his early days, inherited the dilemma from his master, Aristophanes. Patience is supreme satire, and there is satire in all the operas; but in their general effect they do not tell: the author has given up to mankind what was meant for a party. Mr. Chesterton is in the same difficulty; he is like Johnson’s friend who tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness would keep on coming in. The net effect of his works is serious, as it is meant to be, but his fairy-like imagination is for ever defeating its own object in matters of detail. But indeed, Mr. Chesterton is beyond our present scope; for he is rash enough to combine humour not merely with satire but with serious writing ; and that, it is well known, is a thing the public will not stand.

A few modem authors have succeeded, in spite of our latter-day demand for pure humour, in being satirists first and last: Samuel Butler of Erewhon, and W. H. Mallock, and Mr. Belloc, I think, in his political novels. The very poor reception given to these last by the public proves that there is more vinegar in them than oil.

Humour, if we may adopt for a moment the loathsome phraseology of journalism, has “come to stay.” It is, if our analysis be true, a byproduct and in a sense a waste-product; that does not mean that it has no significance. A pearl is a by-product, and from the fishmonger’s point of view a waste-product; but it has value so long as people want it. And there is at present a public demand for humour which implies that humour should take its place among the arts, an art for the art’s sake, not depending on any fruits of practical utility for its estimation. There is art in O. Henry, though he does not scourge our vices like Juvenal; there is art in Heath Robinson, though he does not purge our consciences like Hogarth.

What rank humour is to take as compared with serious writing is, perhaps, an unanswerable problem; our histories of nineteenth century literature have not yet been bold enough to tackle it. It is probable, I think, that humour is relatively ephemeral; by force of words humour means caprice, and the caprice of yesterday is apt to leave us cold. There is a generation not yet quite dead which says that nothing was ever so funny as the Bongaultier Ballads. The popularity of the Ingoldsby Legends is now, to say the least, precarious; and I doubt if the modem youth smacks its lips as we did over the Bab Ballads themselves. Read a book of A. A. Milne’s, and then turn to an old volume of Voces Populi, and you will realize that even in our memory humour has progressed and become rarefied.

What reputations will be left unassailable when the tide has receded, it would be rash to prophesy. For myself, I like to believe that one name will be immortal at least, that of Mr. Max Beerbohm. Incomparably equipped for satire, as his cartoons and his parodies show, he has yet preferred in most of his work to give rein to a gloriously fantastic imagination, a humorist in satirist’s clothing. One is tempted to say with the prophet: May I die the death of the righteous, and may my last end be like his!

Meanwhile, a pertinent question may be raised. What will be the effect of all this modem vogue for pure humour upon the prospects of satiric writing? We are in danger, it seems to me, of debauching our sense of the ridiculous to such an extent as to leave no room for the disciplinary effect of satire. I remember seeing Mr. Shaw’s Press Cuttings first produced in Manchester. I remember a remark, in answer to the objection that women ought not to vote because they do not fight, that a woman risks her life every time a man is born, being received (in Manchester!) with shouts of happy laughter. In that laughter I read the tragedy of Mr. Bernard Shaw. He lashes us with virulent abuse, and we find it exquisitely amusing. Other ages have stoned the prophets; ours pelts them instead with the cauliflower bouquets of the heavy comedian.

No country, I suppose, has greater need of a satirist today than the United States of America; no country has a greater output of humour, good and bad, which is wholly devoid of any satirical quality. If a great American satirist should arise, would his voice be heard among the hearty guffaws which are dismally and eternally provoked by Mutt, Jeff, Felix, and other kindred abominations? And have we, on this side of the Atlantic, any organ in which pure satire could find a natural home?

I believe the danger which I am indicating to be a perfectly real one, however fantastic it may sound—the danger, I mean, that we have lost, or are losing, the power to take ridicule seriously. That our habituation to humorous reading has inoculated our systems against the beneficent poison of satire. Unhappy the Juvenal whom Rome greets with amusement; unhappier still the Rome, that can be amused by a Juvenal

I am not sure, in reading through this essay again, that there is any truth in its suggestions. But I do not see that there can be any harm in having said what I thought, even if I am no longer certain that I think it.


Featured image: “Satire on Tulip Mania,” by Jan Brueghel, ca. 1640.

A Forgotten Interlude

What follows is the script of a broadcast which Ronald Knox made on January 16th, 1926, on the BBC, which purportedly gave a “live report” of a revolution taking place in London, with all the usual havoc and pandemonium. The broadcast set off a nation-wide panic, since memory of the Russian Revolution qas still fresh in people’s minds.

The broadcast is a classic piece of satire, which was later imitated by Orson Welles in his famous War of the Worlds broadcast of October 30th, 1938.


Bzz! Bang! Bzz!

(Indistinct voice of an elderly don is heard in the middle of a lecture)

…weached itth perfection in Gway’th Elegy. The dithtinctive note, then, of eighthteenth thentuwy litewature ith that of technical perfection within a vewy limited wange of performanth. It wath time, perhapth, that the Fwench Wevolution came to dithturb the thecure domination of thothe conventional ideath which were thweatening the human geniuth with thtagnathion. Amid much that wath wegwettable in that movement, thith at leatht ith to be put down to itth cwedit, that it opened the way to a weadjuthtment of litewawy valueth and a higher thenthe of the poththibilitieth of human achievement.

(A prolonged cough, followed by silence).

(The Operator): London calling! That was Mr. William Donkinson, lecturing to you on Eighteenth Century Literature. Mr. William Donkinson. We are now continuing the news bulletin since half-past six. The Test Match. The closing score when stumps were drawn in the Test Match was as follows: Australia 569 for seven wickets. The English team, it will be remembered, was all out for 173. Plucky waterman saves life at Chiswick.

This morning, at a quarter past ten, shouts of help were heard from the Embankment close to Ponder’s Row, Chiswick. James Bates, a waterman, whose attention was called to the cries by a bystander, jumped into the water, and rescued Susie, the five-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, of 17 Sunbury Place, Chiswick. The little one is believed to have fallen into the water accidentally while playing.

The Unemployed Demonstration. The crowd in Trafalgar Square is now assuming threatening dimensions. Threatening dimensions are now being assumed by the crowd which has collected in Trafalgar Square to voice the grievances of the Unemployed. Mr. Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, has been urging the crowd to sack the National Gallery. The desirability of sacking the National Gallery is being urged by Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues… One moment, please…

London calling; continuation of news bulletin from reports which have just come to hand. The crowd in Trafalgar Square is now proceeding, at the instigation of Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, to sack the National Gallery. The National Gallery was first erected in 1838, to house the famous Angerstein collection of pictures, and has been considerably added to since. A new wing, designed by Mr. E. M. Barry, R.A., was added in 1876. It contains many well-known pictures by Raphael, Titian, Murillo, and other artists. It is now being sacked by the crowd, on the advice of Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues. That concludes the news bulletin for the moment; you will now be connected with the band at the Savoy Hotel.

(Dance music on the gramophone).

Hullo, everybody! London calling. You will now be given the weather report for tomorrow. The weather report for tomorrow now beginning. Fine generally, with occasional showers in the South and a continuous downpour in the North. The wind will be violent in England, and in Scotland will probably assume the dimensions of a hurricane. High tide at London Bridge 7.15. That was the weather report for to-morrow.

Continuation of the News Bulletin. The Test Match.

The latest weather reports from Australia announce that a light rain is falling, and the wicket will probably be somewhat sticky when the Australians take the field tomorrow morning.

The Unemployed Demonstration. The crowd is now pouring through the Admiralty Arch, and is advancing towards the back of the Government Buildings in Whitehall in a threatening manner. The Admiralty Arch is being poured through by a crowd, lately collected in Trafalgar Square, and the back of the Government Buildings in Whitehall is being approached in a threatening manner. The Admiralty Arch, designed by Sir Aston Webb, was erected in 1910 as part of the national memorial to Queen Victoria.

One moment, please… The crowd has now collected in the neighbourhood of the artificial water in St. James’ Park, and is throwing empty bottles at the water-fowl. Empty bottles are being discharged by the crowds at the water-fowl on the artificial water in St James’ Park. So far, no casualties have been reported. That concludes the News Bulletin for the moment.

Sir Theophilus Gooch, well-known for his many philanthropic schemes, will now address you on the Housing of the Poor. A lecture on the Housing of the Poor will now be delivered by Sir Theophilus Gooch, K.B.E. Sir Theophilus, it will be remembered, has for many years been chairman of the Committee for the Inspection of Insanitary Dwellings, and speaks with authority on his subject.

Eh, what’s that? One moment, please…

From reports which have just come to hand it appears that Sir Theophilus Gooch, who was on his way to this station, has been intercepted by the remnants of the crowd still collected in Trafalgar Square, and is being roasted alive. Bom in 1879, Sir Theophilus Gooch entered the service of Messrs. Goodbody, the well-known firm of brokers. He very soon attracted the notice of his employers. However, nothing was proved, and Sir Theophilus retired with a considerable fortune. His retirement did not mean idleness; he has been prominent during the last ten years on many Committees connected with social improvement. He is now being roasted alive by a crowd in Trafalgar Square. He will, therefore, be unable to deliver his lecture to you on the Housing of the Poor. You will be connected instead with the Savoy Band for a few minutes.

(Gramophone).

Hullo everybody! London calling. Continuation of News bulletin. Famous film actress arrives at Southampton. Miss Joy Gush, the well-known film actress, landed this afternoon at Southampton. Interviewed by the Press, Miss Gush said she had had a capital crossing.

Unemployed Demonstrations in London. The crowd has now passed along Whitehall, and at the suggestion of Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, is preparing to demolish the Houses of Parliament with trench mortars. The use of trench mortars for demolishing the Houses of Parliament is being recommended by Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.

The building of the existing Houses of Parliament was begun in 1840. The designs were those of Sir Charles Barry. The structure roughly forms a parallelogram, 900 feet in length by 300 in width. The internal decorations, frescoes, and statues are deservedly admired. The building is made of magnesian limestone from Yorkshire, a material which is unfortunately liable to rapid decay.

At present, in any case, it is being demolished with trench mortars under the influence of Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues. The three towers are 300 feet, 320 feet, and 346 feet high respectively.

The Clock Tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock. Big Ben, which used to strike the hours on a bell weighing nine tons. Greenwich time will not be given this evening by Big Ben, but will be given from Edinburgh on Uncle Leslie’s repeating watch.

Uncle Leslie’s repeating watch will be used for giving Greenwich time this evening, instead of Big Ben, which has just fallen to the ground, under the influence of trench mortars. One moment, please…

Fresh reports, which have just come to hand, announce that the crowd have secured the person of Mr. Wotherspoon, the Minister of Traffic, who was attempting to make his escape in disguise. He has now been hanged from a lamp-post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. One of the lamp-posts in the Vauxhall Bridge Road has been utilized by the crowd for the purpose of hanging Mr. Wotherspoon, the Minister of Traffic.

The crowd is now returning along Whitehall. One moment, please…

The British Broadcasting Company regrets that one item in the news has been inaccurately given; the correction now follows.

It was stated in our news bulletin that the Minister of Traffic had been hanged from a lamp-post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Subsequent and more accurate reports show that it was not a lamp-post but a tramway post which was used for this purpose. A tramway post, not a lamp-post, was used by the crowd for the purpose of hanging the Minister of Traffic.

The next three items in our programme are unavoidably cancelled; you will now be connected up with the Savoy Band again. (More gramophone, which stops suddenly with a loud report).

Hullo everybody! London calling. The Savoy Hotel has now been blown up by the crowd. That noise which you heard just now was the Savoy Hotel being blown up by the crowd, at the instigation of Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues. One moment, please…

The more unruly members of the crowd are now approaching the British Broadcasting Company’s London station with a threatening demeanour. A threatening demeanour is being exhibited by the crowd which is now approaching the B.B.C.’s London station. One moment, please…

Mr. Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, with several other members of the crowd, is now in the waiting room. They are reading copies of the Radio Times.

Good-night everybody; good-night.


Featured image: “Rissa in galleria (“Riot in the Gallery”), by Umberto Boccioni, painted in 1911.

Studies In The Literature Of Sherlock Holmes

This essay by Ronald Knox created and established the Sherlockian tradition of the “Great Game,” in which the stories about Sherlock Holmes are treated as true and are then carefully placed within the context of history, literature and philosophy, Knox wrote this essay in 1911, and it was published in 1912. It forever changed the status of Sherlock Holmes.

We give below the entire essay, with the various Greek and Latin passages Englished, and references annotated.


If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren’t meant to do. If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental. Thus, if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife; if a poet writes on buttercups, every word he says may be used as evidence against him at an inquest of his views on a future existence. On this fascinating principle, we delight to extort economic evidence from Aristophanes, because Aristophanes knew nothing of economics: we try to extract cryptograms from Shakespeare, because we are inwardly certain that Shakespeare never put them there: we sift and winnow the Gospel of St. Luke, in order to produce a Synoptic problem, because St. Luke, poor man, never knew the Synoptic problem to exist.

There is, however, a special fascination in applying this method to Sherlock Holmes, because it is, in a sense, Holmes’s own method. “It has long been an axiom of mine,” he says, “that the little things are infinitely the most important.” It might be the motto of his life’s work. And it is, is it not, as we clergymen say, by the little things, the apparently unimportant things, that we judge of a man’s character.

If anyone objects, that the study of Holmes literature is unworthy of scholarly attention, I might content myself with replying that to the scholarly mind anything is worthy of study, if that study be thorough and systematic. But I will go further, and say that if at the present time we need a far closer familiarity with Sherlock’s methods. The evil that he did lived after him, the good is interred with him in the Reichenbach. It is a known fact, that is, that several people contracted the dirty and deleterious habit of taking cocaine as a result of reading the books. It is equally obvious that Scotland Yard has benefited not a whit either by his satire or by his example. When Holmes, in the “Mystery of the Red-Headed League,” discovered that certain criminals were burrowing their way into the cellars of a bank, he sat with a dark lantern in the cellar, and nabbed them quietly as they cam through. But when the Houndsditch gang were found to be meditating an exactly similar design, what did the police authorities do? They sent a small detachment of constables, who battered on the door of the scene of operations at the bank, shouting, “We think there is a burglary going on in here.” They were of course shot down, and the Home Office had to call out a whole regiment with guns and a fire brigade, in order to hunt down the survivors.

Any studies in Sherlock Holmes must be, first and foremost, studies in Dr. Watson. Let us treat at once of the literary and bibliographical aspects of the question. First, as to authenticity. There are several grave inconsistencies in the Holmes cycle. For example the Study in Scarlet and the Reminiscences are from the hand of John H. Watson, M.D., but in the story of “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Mrs. Watson addresses her husband as James. The present writer, together with three brothers, wrote to ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for an explanation, appending their names in the proper style with crosses after them, and an indication that this was the sign of the Four. The answer was that it was an error, an error, in fact of editing. “Nihil aliud hic latet,” says the great Sauwosch, “nisi redactor ignoratissimus” [Nothing else is hidden here except the ignorant redactor]. Yet this error gave the original impetus to Backnecke theory of the Deutero-Watson, to whom he assigns the Study in Scarlet, the “Gloria Scott,” and the “Return of Sherlock Holmes.” He leaves to the proto-Watson the rest of the Memoirs, the Adventures, the Sign of Four and the Hound of the Baskervilles. He disputed the Study in Scarlet on other grounds, the statement in it, for example, that Holmes’s knowledge of literature and philosophy was nil, whereas it is clear and the true Holmes was a man of wide reading and deep thought. We shall deal with this in its proper place.

The “Gloria Scott” is condemned by Backnecke partly on the ground of the statement that Holmes was only up for two years at College, while he speaks in the “Musgrave Ritual” of “my last years” at the University; which Backnecke supposes to prove that the two stories do not come from the same hand. The “Gloria Scott” further represents Percy Trevor’s bull-dog as having bitten Holmes on his way down to Chapel, which is clearly untrue, since dogs are not allowed within the gates at either university. “The bull-dog is more at home” he adds “on the Chapel steps, that this fraudulent imitation among the divine products of the Watson-genius.” A further objection to the “Gloria Scott” is that it exhibits only four divisions out of the eleven-fold division (to be mentioned later) of the complete Holmes-episode, a lower percentage than is found in any other genuine story. For myself, however, I am content to believe that this irregularity is due merely to the exception character of the investigation, while the two inaccuracies are too slight (me judice, in my judgment) to form the basis for so elaborate a theory. I would include both the “Gloria Scott” and the Study in Scarlet as genuine incidents of the Holmes-biography.

When we come to the “Final Problem,” the alleged death of Holmes, and his subsequent return in an unimpaired and even vigorous condition, the problem grows darker. Some critics, accepting the Return stories as genuine, regard the “Final Problem” as an incident faked by Watson for his own purposes; thus M. Piff-Pouff represents it as an old dodge of the thaumaturgist, and quotes the example of Salmoxis or Gebeleizis among the Getae, who hid underground for two years, and then returned to preach the doctrine of immortality. In fact, M. Piff-Pouff’s verdict is thus expressed: “Sherlock Holmes has not at all fallen from the Reichenbach, it is Vatson who has fallen from the pinnacle of his mendacity.” In a similar vein, Bilgemann asserts that the episode is a weak imitation of Empodocles on Etna, the alpenstock being left behind to represent the famous slipper which was revomited by the volcano. “The episode of the ‘Final Problem,’ in his own immortal language, “has the Watsons-applecart completely overturned.”

Others, Backnecke of course among them, regard the “Final Problem” as genuine, and the Return stories as a fabrication. The evidence against these stories may be divided into (a) those suggested by changes in the character and methods of Holmes, (b) those resting on impossibilities in the narrative itself, (c) inconsistencies found by comparison with previous narrative.

(a) The true Holmes is never discourteous to a client: the Holmes of the “The Adventure of the Three Students” “shrugged his shoulders in ungracious acquiescence while our visitor… poured fourth his story.” On the other hand, the true Holmes has no morbid craving for serious crime, but when John Hector Macfarlane talks of the probability of being arrested, the detective is represented as saying “Arrest you! This is most grati — most interesting.” Twice in the Return he gibes at his prisoner, a habit from which the true Holmes, whether from professional etiquette of for other reasons, invariably abstains. Again, the false Holmes actually calls a client by her Christian name, an impossible thing to an author whose views had not been distorted by the erroneous presentation of him in the play. He deliberately abstains from food while at work: the real Holmes only does so through absent-mindedness, as in the “Case of the Five Orange Pips.” He quotes Shakespeare in these stories alone, and that three times, without acknowledgement. He gives way to ludicrously bad logic in the “Dancing men.” He sends Watson as his emissary in the “Solitary cyclist,” and this is elsewhere unparalleled, for in the Hound of the Baskervilles he himself goes down to Dartmoor as well, to watch the case incognito. The true Holmes never splits and infinitive; the Holmes of the Return-stories splits at least three.

(b) It is likely that a University scholarship paper—nay, an Oxford scholarship paper, for the Quadrangle is mentioned in connexion with it—should be printed only one day before the examination? That it should consist of only half a chapter of Thucydides? That this half-chapter should take the examiner an hour and a half to correct for the press? That the proofs of the half-chapter should be in three consecutives slips? Moreover, if a pencil was marked with the name JOHANN FABER, how could the two letters NN, and these two only, be left on the stump? Prof. J. A. Smith has further pointed out that it would be impossible to find out from the superimposition of the tracks of front and back bicycle tyres, whether the cyclist was going or coming.

(c) As to actual inconsistencies. In the mystery of the “Solitary Cyclist” a marriage is performed with no one present except the happy couple and the officiating clergyman. In the “Scandal in Bohemia” Holmes, disguised as a loafer, is deliberately called in to give away an unknown bride on the ground that the marriage will not be valid without a witness. In the “Final Problem,” the police secure “the whole gang with the exception of Moriarty.” In the “Story of the Empty House” we hear that they failed to incriminate Colonel Moran. Professor Moriarty, in the Return is called Professor James Moriarty whereas know from the “Final Problem” that James was really the name of his military brother, who survived him. And, worst of all, the dummy in the Baker Street window is draped in “the old mouse-coloured dressing-gown!” As if we had forgotten that it was a blue dressing-gown that Holmes smoked an ounce of shag tobacco at a sitting, while he unraveled the dark complication of “The Man with the Twisted Lip!” “The detective,” says M. Papier Mache, “has become a chameleon.” “This is not the first time,” says the more ponderous Sauwosch, “that a coat of many colours has been as a deception used! But in truth Sherlock, our modern Joseph, has altogether disappeared, and the evil beast Watson has him devoured.”

To this criticism I assent: I cannot assent, however, to the theory of the deutero-Watson. I believed that all the stories were written by Watson, but whereas the genuine cycle actually happened, the spurious adventures are the lucubrations of his own unaided invention. Surely we may reconstruct the facts thus. Watson has been a bit of a gad-about. He is a spendthrift: so much we know from the beginning of the Study in Scarlet. His brother, so Holmes finds out by examining the scratches on the keyhole of his watch, was a confirmed drunkard. He himself, as a bachelor, haunts the Criterion Bar: in the Sign of Four he admits having had too much Beaune for lunch, behaves strangely at lunch, spekes of firing off a double-barreled tiger-cub at a musket, and cautions his future wife against taking more than two drops of castor-oil, while recommending strychnine in large doses as a sedative. What happens? His Eligah is taken away from him: his wife, as we know dies: he slips back into the grip of his old enemy; his practice, already diminished by continued neglect, vanishes away; he is forced to earn a livelihood by patching together clumsy travesties of the wonderful incidents of which he was once the faithful recorder.

Sauwosch has even worked out an elaborate table of his debts to other authors, and to the earlier stories. Holmes’s stay in Thibet with the Grand Lama is due to Dr. Nikola; the cipher of the “Dancing Men” is read in the same manner as that in the “Gold Bug,” by Edgar Allen Poe; the “Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” shows the influence of Raffles; the “Norwood Builder” owes much to the “Scandal in Bohemia;” the “Solitary Cyclist” has the plot of the “Greek Interpreter;” the “Six Napoleons” of the “Blue Carbuncle;” the “Adventure of the Second Stain” is a doublet of the “Naval Treaty,” and so on.

We now pass on to the dating of the various pieces, so far as it can be determined by internal evidence, implicit or explicit. The results may be tabulated thus:

(1) The “Gloria Scott”—Holmes’s first case. (2) The “Musgrave Ritual”—his second. (3) The Study in Scarlet—Watson first appears, i.e., the first of the We-Stories, date 1879. (4) 1883, the “Speckled Band.” (5) 1887, April, the “Reigate Squires.” (6) Same year, the “Five Orange Pips.” (7) 1888, “The Sign of Four”—Watson becomes engaged. (8) “The “Noble Bachelor.” Then comes “Watson’s Wedding,” followed closely by (9) The “Crooked Man.” (10) “The Scandal in Bohemia,” and (11) The “Naval Treaty,” apparently in that order.

To some period in the year ’88 we must assign 12, 13, and 14, that is, the “Stockbroker’s Clerk,” the “Case of Identity,” and the “Red-Headed League.” In the June of ’89 we have (15) the “Man with the Twisted Lip,” (16) the “Engineer’s Thumb” (summer), and (17) the “Blue Carbuncle” (somewhere in the octave of Christmas). The “Final Problem” is dated ’91. Of the remainder, “Silver Blaze,” the “Yellow Face,” the “Resident Patient,” the “Greek Interpreter,” the “Beryl Coronet,” and the “Copper Beeches” are apparently before “Watson’s Wedding,” the “Boscombe Valley Mystery” after it: otherwise they are undated.

There remains only the Hound of the Baskervilles. This is explicitly dated 1889, that is, it does not pretend to be after the Return. Sauwosch, who believes it to be spurious, points out that the Times would never have had a leader on free Trade till after 1903. But this argument from internal evidence defeats itself: we can show by a method somewhat akin to that of Blunt’s Undesigned Coincidences in Holy Scriptures that it was meant to be before 1903. The old crank who wants to have a law-suit against the police says it will be known as the case of Frankland versus REGINA—King Edward, as we all know, succeeded in 1901.

I must not waste time over other evidences (very unsatisfactory) which have been adduced to show the spuriousness of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes’s cat-like love of personal cleanliness is not really inconsistent with the statement in the Study in Scarlet that he had pinpricks all over his hand covered with plaster – though this is also used by Backnecke to tell against the genuineness of the earlier production. A more serious question is that of Watson’s breakfast-hour. Both in the Study in Scarlet and in the Adventures we hear that Watson breakfasted after Holmes: in the Hound we are told that Holmes breakfasted late. But, then, the true inference from this is that Watson breakfasted very late indeed.

Taking, then, as the basis of our study, the three long stories, The Sign of Four, A Study in Scarlet, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, together with the twenty-three short stories, twelve in the Adventures, and eleven in the Memoirs, we may proceed to examine the construction and the literary antecedents of this form of art. The actual scheme of each should consist, according to the German scholar, Ratzegger, followed by most of his successors, of eleven distinct parts; the order of them may in some cases be changed about, and more or less of them may appear as the story is closer to or further from the ideal type. Only A Study in Scarlet exhibits all of the eleven; The Sign of Four and “Silver Blaze” have ten, the “Boscombe Valley Mystery” and the “Beryl Coronet” nine, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the “Speckled Band,” the “Reigate Squires,” and The Naval Treaty” eight, and so on till we reach “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Crooked Man,” and “The Final Problem” with five, and the “Gloria Scott” with only four.

The first part is the Proömion [Preface], a homely Baker Street scene, with invaluable personal touches, and sometimes a demonstration by the detective. Then follows the first explanation, or Exegesis kata ton diokonta [exegesis according to the perrsecutor], that is, the client’s statement of the case, followed by the Ichneusis [Tracking], or personal investigation, often including the famous floor-walk on hands and knees. No. 1 is invariable, Nos. 2 and 3 almost always present. Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are less necessary: they include the Anaskeue, or refutation on its own merits of the official theory of Scotland Yard, the first Promenusis [inspection] (exoterike, external) which gives a few stray hints to the police, which they never adopt, and the second Promenusis (esoterike, internal), which adumbrates the true course of the investigation to Watson alone. This is sometimes wrong, as in the “Yellow Face.” No. 7 is the Exetasis [examination] or further following up of the trial, including the cross-questioning of relatives, dependents, etc., of the corpse (if there is one), visits to the Record Office, and various investigations in an assumed character. No. 8 is the Anagnorisis [dénouement], in which the criminal is caught or exposed. No. 9 the second Exegesis (kata ton pheugonta, concerning the pursuit), that is to say the criminal’s confession, No. 10 the Metamenusis [post-analysys], in which Holmes describes what his clues were and how he followed them, and No. 11 the epilogos [conclusion], sometimes comprised in a single sentence. This conclusion is, like the Proömion, invariable, and often contains a gnome or quotation from some standard author.

Although the Study in Scarlet is in a certain sense the type and ideal of a Holmes story, it is also to some extent a primitive type, of which elements were later discarded. The Exegesis kata ton pheugonta is told for the most part, not in the words of the criminal, but as a separate story in the mouth of the narrator: it occupies a disproportionate amount of the total space. This shows directly the influence of Gaboriau: his Detective’s Dilemma is one volume, containing an account of the tracing of the crime back to its author, who is of course a duke: the second volume, the Detective’s Triumph, is almost entirely a retailing of the duke’s family history, dating back to the Revolution, and we only rejoin Lecoq, the detective, in the last chapter. Of course, this method of telling the story was found long and cumbrous, but the French school has not yet seen through it, since the “Mystery of the Yellow Room” leaves a whole unexplained problem to provide copy for “The Perfume of the Lady in Black.”

But the literary affinities of Dr. Watson’s masterly style are to be looked for further afield than Gaboriau, or Poe, or Wilkie Collins. M. Piff-Pouff especially, in his Psychologie de Vatson, has instituted some very remarkable parallels with the Dialogues of Plato, and with the Greek drama. He reminds us of the blustering manner of Thrasymachus when he first breaks into the argument of the Republic, and compares the entry of Athelney Jones: “Oh, come, now, come! Never be ashamed to own up! But what’s all this? Bad business, bad business! Stern facts here, no room for theories,” and so on. And when the detective comes back crestfallen after a few days, wiping his brow with a red handkerchief, we remember how Socrates describes the first time in his life when he ever saw Thrasymachus blushing. The rival theories of Gregson and Lestrade only serve to illustrate the multiformity of error.

But the most important point is the nature of the Scotland Yard criticism. Lecoq has his rival, but the rival is his own superior in the detective force, thwarts his schemes out of pique, and actually connives at the prisoner’s receiving notes through the window of his cell. The jealousy of a Lestrade has none of this paltry spirit about it; it is a combination of intellectual pride and professional pique. It is the opposition of the regular force to the amateur. Socrates was hated by the sophists because they took money, and he did not. The cases in which Holmes takes money, explicitly at any rate, are few. In the “Scandal in Bohemia” he is given £1, 000, but this would seem to be only for current expenses, and my well have been refunded. At the end, he refuses the gift of an emerald ring. He will not allow the City and Suburban Bank to do more than pay his expenses in connection with the “Red-Headed League.” He says the same elsewhere: “As for my reward, my profession is my reward.” On the other hand he takes £4, 000 from Mr. Holder when he has recovered the missing beryls for £3, 000. In A Study in Scarlet, when setting out in business, he says: “I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee.” In the “Greek Interpreter” he affirms that detection is a means of livelihood with him. And in the “Final Problem” we hear that he has been so well paid for his services in several instances to crowed heads that he is thinking of retiring from business and taking to chemistry. We must suppose, therefore, that he did sometimes take payment, but perhaps only where his clients could well afford it. None the less, as compared with the officials, he is a free lance: he has no axe to grind, no promotion to seek. And further, there is an antithesis of method. Holmes is determined not to be led away by side issues and apparent pressure of facts: this it is that raises him above the level of the sophists.

If the sophists have been borrowed from the Platonic dialogue, one element at least had been borrowed from the Greek drama. Gaboriau has no Watson. The confidant of Lecoq is an old soldier, preternaturally stupid, inconceivably inefficient. Watson provides what the Holmes drama needs—a Chorus. He represents the solid, orthodox, respectable view of the world in general; his drabness is accentuated by contrast with the limelight which beats upon the central figure. He remains stable amid the eddy and flux of circumstance.

Ille bonis faveatque, et consiletur amicis, Et regat iratos, et amet peccare timentes; Ille dapes laudet mensae brevis, ille salubrem Justitium, legasque, et apertis otia portis. Ille tegat commissa, deosque precetur et oret wut redeat miseris, abeat fortuna superbis (Let it [the Chorus] favor the good, and render friendly counsel, and let it sway the angry, and love those who fear to sin. One the one hand, it should praise the banquet of the mwager table, and on the other wholesome justice, and the laws, and the gates of peace being opened. Let it shroud its entreaties, and let it pray and beg the gods that fortune may return to the wretched, and depart from the proud (Horace, Ars Poetica, 96-102).

It is professor Sabaglione that we owe the profoundest study of Watson in his choric character. He compares such passages at that in the “Specked Band”:

Holmes: “The lady could not move her bed. It must always be in the same relative position to the ventilator and the rope – for such we may call it, since it was clearly never meant for a bell-pull.”

Watson: “Holmes, I seem to see what you are hinting at. We are only jus in time to prevent some subtle and horrible crime.”

with the well-know passage in the Agamemnon:

Cassandra: “Ah, ah, keep away the bull from the cow! She takes him, the black-horned one, in a net by her device, and smites him; he falls in a watery vessel – I speak to thee of the Mystery of the Treacherous Cauldron” (1125).

Chorus: “Far be it from me to boast of any particular skill in oracles, but I deduce from these words some impending evil” (1130).

Watson, like the Chorus, is ever in touch with the main action, and seems to share the full privileges of the audience; yet, like the Chorus, he is always about three stages behind the audience in the unraveling of the plot.

And the seal, and symbol, and secret of Watson is, of course, his bowler. It is not like other bowlers; it is a priestly vestment, an insigne of office. Holmes may wear a squash hat, but Watson cleaves to his bowler, even at midnight in the silence of Dartmoor, or on the solitary slopes of the Reichenbach. He wears it constantly, even as the archimandrite or the rabbi wears his hat: to remove it would be akin to the shearing of Samson’s locks by Delilah. “Watson and his bowler” says M. Piff-Pouff, “they are separable only in thought.” It is his apex of wool, his petasus of invisibility, his mitra pretiosa, his triple tiara, his halo. The bowler stand for all that is immutable and irrefragable, for law and justice, for the established order of things, for the rights of humanity, for the triumph of the man over the brute. It towers colossal over sordidness and misery and crime: it shames and heals and hallows. The curve of its brim is the curve of perfect symmetry; the rotundity of its crown is the rotundity of the world. ‘From the hats of Holmes’s clients,’ writes Professor Sabaglione, ‘deduce themselves the trains, the habits, the idiosyncrasies: from the hat of Watson deduces itself his character.’ Watson is everything to Holmes – his medical adviser, his foil, his philosopher, his confidant, his sympathizer, his biographer, his domestic chaplain, but above all things else he stands exalted in history as the wearer of the unconquerable bowler hat.

And if the rival detectives are the sophists and Watson is the Chorus, what of the clients, and what of the criminals? It is most important to remember that these are only secondary figures. “The murderers of the Holmes cycle,” M. Papier Mache assures us, “are of no more importance than the murderers are not in Macbeth.” Holmes himself often deprecates Watson’s habit of making the stories too sensational, but he does him an injustice. The authors of crime are not, in Watson, of personal interest, like the Duke in Gaboriau; they have no relation to the detective other than that which subsists between the sleuth-hound and its quarry – the author of the “Mystery of the Yellow Room” was a bungler when he made Jacques Rouletbille the criminal’s natural son – they are not animated by lofty of religious motives like the high-flown villains in Mr. Chesterton’s Innocence of Father Brown. All clients are model clients: they state their case in flawless journalese; all criminals are model criminals; they do the cleverest thing a criminal could possibly do in the given circumstances. By a sort of Socratic paradox, we might say that the best detective can only catch the best thief. A single blunder on the part of the guilty man would have thrown all Holmes’s deductions out of joint. Love and money are their only incentives: brutality and cunning their indefeasible qualities.

And thus we arrive at the central figure himself, and must try to gather together a few threads in the complex and many—sided character. There is an irony in the process, for Holmes liked to look upon himself as a machine, an inhuman and undifferentiated sleuth-hound. L’Homme, c’est rien; l’oeuvre, c’est tout (“man is nothing, his work is everything”), was one of his favourite quotations.

Sherlock Holmes was descended from a long line of country squires: his grandmother was the sister of a French artist: his elder brother Mycroft was, as we all know, more gifted than himself, but found an occupation, if the Reminscences are to be trusted, in a confidential audit of Government accounts. Of Sherlock’s school career we know nothing; Watson was at school, and one of his schoolmates was the nephew of a peer, but this seems to have been exceptional there, since it was considered good fun to “chevy him about the playground and hit him over the shins with a wicket.” This seems to dispose of the idea that Watson was an Etonian. On the other hand, we have no evidence as to his University career, except the testimony (always doubtful) of one of the Return stories that he was unacquainted with the scenery of Cambridgeshire. Of Holmes’s student days our knowledge is much fuller; he was reserved by nature, and his recreations – boxing and fencing – did not make him many acquaintances. One of his friends was Percy Trevor, son of an ex-convict, who had made his money in the Australian goldfields; another Reginald Musgrave, whose ancestors went back to the Conquest – quite the last word in aristocracy. He lived in a College, but what College? And at which University? The argument that his scientific bent would have naturally taken him to Cambridge defeats itself, for why should he have been only up two years if he wanted a proper scientific training? More and more as I consider the wealth of his two friends, the exclusive aristocracy of the one, and the doggy tendencies of the other, together with the isolation which put even so brilliant a light as Holmes’s under a bushel – more and more I incline to the opinion that he was up at the House. But we have no sure evidence.

If he was an Oxford man, he was not a Greats’ man. Yet when Watson describes his first impressions of the man at the beginning of the Study in Scarlet – the locus classicus for Holmes’s characteristics – he wrongs him in saying that his knowledge of philosophy is nil, and his knowledge of literature is nil. The fact is, clearly, that Holmes did not let his talents appear till he had been living with Watson for some time, and had come to recognize his sterling qualities. In fact, he compares Hafiz with Horace, quotes Tacitus, Jean Paul, Flaubert, Goethe, and Thoreau, and reads Petrarch in a G.W.R. carriage. He has no definite interest in philosophy as such, yet he holds certain definite views on scientific method. A philosopher could not have said, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ He could not have confused observation with inference, as Holmes does when he says, “Observations shows me you have been to the Post Office” judging by the mud on Watson’s boots. There must be inference here, though it may be called implicit inference, however rabid the transition of thought. Yet Holmes was no Sensationalist. What sublime confession of faith could a realist make that the remark in the Study in Scarlet: “I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”

And here I must say a word on the so-called “method of deduction.” M. Papier Mache has boldly asserted that it was stolen from Gaboriau. M. Piff-Pouff in his well-known article, “Qu’est-ce que c’est la deduction?” [What is Deduction] declares roundly that Holmes’s methods were inductive. The two fallacies rest on a common ground. Lecoq has observations: he notices footsteps on the snow. He has powers of inference for he can infer from such footsteps the behaviour of those who have left them. He has not the method of deduction – he never sits down and reasons out what is probable the man would have done next. Lecoq has his lens and his forceps: he has not the dressing-gown and the pipe. That is why he has to depend on mere chance, again and again, for picking up lost threads. Holmes no more depended on a chance than he prayed for a miracle. That is why Lecoq, baffled after a long investigation, has to have recourse to a sort of arm-chair detective, who, without leaving the arm-chair, tells him exactly what must have happened. It is wrong to call this latter character, as M. Papier Mache does, the original of Mycroft: he is the original, if you will, of Sherlock. Lecoq is but the Stanley Hopkins, almost the Lestrade, of his period. Holmes himself has explained for us the difference between observation (or inference) and deduction. It is by observation a posteriori that he recognizes Watson’s visit to the Post Office from the mud on his trousers; it is by deduction a priori that he knows he has been sending a telegram, since he has seen plenty of stamps and postcards in Watson’s desk.

Let us now take two pictures of Sherlock Holmes, the one at leisure, the other at work. Leisure was, of course, abhorrent to him – more so than to Watson. Watson says he was reckoned fleet of foot, but we have only his own word for it, and Holmes always beat him; beyond this alleged prowess we have no evidence of Watson’s athleticism, except that he could throw a rocket through a first-floor window. But Holmes had been a boxer and a fencer; during periods of enforced inactivity he fired a revolver at the opposite wall till he had “marked it with the patriotic device V.R.” Violin playing occupied leisure moments when Watson first knew him, but later it seems to be nothing more than a relaxation after hard work. And – this is very important – in this music was the exact antithesis of cocaine. We never hear of the drug being used in order to stimulate the mental faculties for hard work. All the stimulus needed he derived from tobacco. We all know, of course, that he smoked shag: few people could say off-hand what his pipe was made of. As a matter of fact, his tastes were various. The long vigil in Neville St. Clair’s house was solaced by a briar – this is when he is hard at work; when he sees his way through a problem bin inspection, as in the “Case of Identity,” he takes down “the old and oily clay pipe, which was to him as a counselor.” In the “Copper Beeches” he takes down “The long cherrywood pipe with which he was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood.” On one occasion he offers Watson snuff. Watson, by the way, smoked Ship’s tobacco when he went into lodgings with Holmes, but must have replaced it soon after with a sterner stuff, thinly veiled under the nom de plume of Arcadia Mixture. This expensive product he did not abandon even under the exigencies of married life; though his circumstances were not those of affluence, since he had linoleum laid down in the front hall. But the pipe is not to Watson what it is to Holmes: to Holmes belongs the immortal phrase: “This will be a three-pipe problem.” He is one of the world’s great smokers.

Now let us see Holmes at work. We all know how brisk he becomes at the appearance of a client; how, according to the inimitable phrase in the Reminiscences: “Holmes sat up in his chair and took his pipe out of his mouth like a hound that has heard the View Halloo.” We have seen him in the mind’s eye prowling round the room with his nose an inch from the ground, on the look-out for cigarette-ends, orange-peel, false teeth, domes of silence, and what not, that my have been left behind by the criminal. “It is not a man,:” says M. Minsk, the great Polish critic, “it is either a beast or a god.”

It is this charge of inhumanity brought against Holmes that I wish specially to rebut. True, he is reported to have been found beating the dead subjects in the laboratory, to see whether or no bruises could be produced after death. True, he was a scientist. True, we get passages like that in the Sign of Four.

“Miss Morstan: From that day to this no world has been heard of my unfortunate father. He came home with his heart full of hope, to find some peace, some comfort, and instead—

She put her had to her throat, and a choking sob cut short her utterance. “‘The date?’ asked Holmes, opening his notebook.”

But is it true to say that Holmes’s anxiety to catch the criminal was not, like Watson’s, due to a passion for justice, but a purely scientific interest in deduction? Such truths are never more than half-0truths: it would be hard to say that the footballer plays only for the goal, or that he plays only for the sake of exercise. Humanity and science in Holmes are strangely blended. At one moment we find him saying “Women are never to be trusted, not even the best of them” (the coward!) or asserting that he cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues, since the logician must see all things exactly as they are. Even his little sermon on the rose in the Naval Treaty is delivered in order to cover the fact that he is examining the window-frame for scratches. At another moment he is purchasing “something a little choice in white wines,” and discoursing on miracle plays, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future.

But there are two specially human characteristics which come out at the very moment of action. One is a taste for the theatrical arrangement, as when he sends back five orange pips to the murderers of John Openshaw, or takes a sponge into prison with which to unmask the man with the Twisted Lip, or serves up the Naval Treaty under a cover as a breakfast dish. The other is a taste for epigram. When he gets a letter from a duke, he says: “It looks like one of those social summonses which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie.” There is a special kind of epigram, known as the Sherlockismus, of which the indefatigable Ratzegger has collected no less than one hundred and seventy-three instances. The following may serve as examples:

“Let me call your attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. The dog did nothing at all in the night-time. That was the curious incident,” said Sherlock Holmes.

And again:

“I was following you, of course.” “Following me? I saw nobody.” “That is what you must expect to see when I am following you,” said Sherlock Holmes.

To write fully on this subject would need two terms’ lectures at least. Some time, when leisure and enterprise allow, I hope to deliver them. Meanwhile, I have thrown out these hints, drawn these outlines of a possible mode of treatment. You know my methods, Watson: apply them.


Featured image: Illustration for “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” by Sidney Paget, 1892.