Knut Hamsun: Between Modernity and Tradition

Knut Hamsun was an adventurer, who has travelled through styles, genres and eras. A Norwegian genius, who is now largely unknown and forgotten, has left the literary world a work as dense as a northern forest, alternately obscure and enchanting. As a modern storyteller, he tried to escape the shackles of the literature of his time, working on both the psychology of his characters and language like a goldsmith.

If the Scandinavian writer Martin Nag describes Knut Hamsun as the “Norwegian Dostoyevsky,” it is undoubtedly because Hamsun was very much influenced by the realism of the author of The Possessed (to be clear, Russian realism is not that of the French tradition), even if his literary career took him much further. It was through an article published in 1890 in the magazine Samtiden, entitled “On the Unconscious Life of the Soul” that Knut Hamsun revealed his literary project. In this theoretical counterpart to his major novel, Hunger (1890), Hamsun showed the connection he sought to make, at least in an unconscious way, between Nietzsche’s individualism (although he neither read nor met him) and Franz Kafka’s modernity. Hamsun was impregnated by Nietzschean philosophy, thanks to the influence of Georg Brandes, who from 1888 onwards, gave a series of lectures, in Scandinavia, on the author of the Gay Science, a mindset that can be found in “Dark Sky,” the last chapter of the last book that Hamsun devoted to his trip to America. Blithely mocking his predecessors, especially Guy de Maupassant, he explored the depths of the human soul, starting with his own. This is how Hunger takes the form of a quasi-autobiographical novel. Knut Hamsun made the main character, an anonymous, modern urban, faceless, without roots, proof of his desire to break with the old codes of realism and naturalism of the declining nineteenth century—naturalism, which was more concerned with describing places, characters and objects in detail, with the aim of faithfully re-transcribing “nature.”

Knut Hamsun and the Modernity of Language

Much more than a social novel dealing with the misery and wandering of a man in a European capital that is totally unknown to him, Hunger is a psychological novel that puts its narrator in front of an alter-ego, an ambiguous companion, whom he maintains in order to cultivate the inspiration necessary for his literary work: “I had noticed very clearly that if I fasted for a long enough period, it was as if my brain was flowing very slowly from my head and leaving it empty.” This character runs through the novel, balanced between moments of genius and brilliance, between physical and mental torture. He writes thus: “God had stuck his finger in the network of my nerves and discreetly, by that way, had tangled up the threads a bit.” This ambivalent character allows Hamsun to evoke his own neuroses and to announce another objective of his life: the aesthetics of language. He never stopped working at it; sometimes with fever.

Kristofer Janson, a poet and priest who knew Hamsun, said that he knew “no one as sickly obsessed with verbal aesthetics as he was… He could jump for joy and gorge himself all day on the originality of a descriptive adjective he read in a book or found himself.” In Hunger, the character has an unpredictable and tumultuous relationship with writing: “It was as if a vein had burst in me, words follow one another, organized themselves into sets, constituted situations; scenes accumulated, actions and lines piled up in my brain and I was seized with a wonderful well-being. I write like a man possessed. I fill page after page without a moment’s respite… It keeps bursting into me. I am full of my subject and each word I write is like a dictation.”

His first novel thus inaugurated a work on the aesthetics of language. Previously, Hamsun spoke a Norwegian still “bastard,” peasant, and quite far from the bourgeois Norwegian of the capital. This is probably what he had in mind when he wrote in an article in 1888: “Language must cover all the ranges of music. The poet must always, in all situations, find the word that vibrates, that speaks to me, that can wound my soul to the point of sobbing by its precision. The word can metamorphose into color, into sound, into smell; it is up to the artist to use it to hit the nail on the head… You have to roll around in the words, to revel in them; you have to know the direct but also secret force of the Word… There are high and low resonance strings, and there are harmonics.”

Hamsun’s writing is therefore unquestionably psychological and introspective. The hunger of the hero serves to exacerbate the deepest traits of his personality. Similarly, in Pan, Hamsun delivers the character of the captain in exile, to better confront his thoughts with the wilderness: “I am sitting in the mountain and the sea and the air are whispering, which bubble and groan horribly in my ears because of the weather and the wind… The sea rises in the air, foaming and staggering, staggering; it is as if populated by great furious figures that spread their limbs and bawl at each other. No, it is a feast among ten thousand hissing demons that sink their heads into their shoulders and circle, whipping the sea into foam with the tips of their wings. Far, far away…”

We can also notice the influence of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground on the novel Mysteries and more particularly on the character of Nagel, a man who has a taste for contradiction, and who nourishes an irrepressible need for escape. Nagel shocks by his habits, by his behavior, by his attire. Indeed, if Hamsun’s stories are full of details about the clothes of the protagonists, we know almost nothing about their physical portrait. Thus, the character of Hunger attaches particular importance to his vest, which he leaves “in the hock” to be able to get some money; but his name is never mentioned. And Nagel is always dressed in a suit and a hat. Hamsun’s characters are thus reduced to a silhouette, flat areas of neo-impressionist colors that reveal only their most intimate and sometimes most brutal psychology, like Thomas Glahn in Pan, who kills his dog without apparent motive.

Knut Hamsun, the Man of Tradition

If Knut Hamsun’s characters are modern in their resolutely introspective treatment, they evolve in a surprisingly traditional setting. Indeed, Knut Hamsun, raised in the Protestant tradition by his uncle, and drawing from his mother a deep attachment to his country, fed his stories with a telluric and almost carnal energy.

Hamsun reveals himself in a less obvious way as a man of tradition, in many ways a “pagan who adores Christ,” to quote Nicolás Gómez Dávila. One thinks of the setting of his novels, such as Pan, in which he shows his attachment to the nature of the North, or Markens grode (The Fruits of the Earth, or Growth of the Soil), a rewriting of Genesis. Very critical of bourgeois materialism, Hamsun maintained throughout his life a close relationship with spirituality, which occupies an important place in his books. Thus, in Victoria (1898), he writes in praise of the Gospels: “Love was the first word of God and the first thought that crossed his mind. When he commanded ‘Let there be light,’ love was. All his creation was successful and he did not want to change anything. And love, which had been at the origin of the world, was also its master. But its paths are strewn with flowers and blood. Of flowers and blood.”

Hamsun’s detestation of the bourgeois world is also apparent in a 1917 work entitled, Segelfoss By (Segelfoss Town). In it, Hamsun evokes a city “as if resurrected from the dead,” where people live in “small and old-fashioned” conditions, which is “as it used to be, a long time ago.” This neighboring city is symbolically outside of space and time. However, there is no nostalgia in Hamsun, who is aware of the changes and ruptures of time. Enemy of the modern world and major player in the Norwegian literary revival, his fate is similar to that of Ezra Pound in the United States or Louis-Ferdinand Céline in France.


Antoine Pizaine is a historian, monarchist and Maurrassian. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.


Featured: “Portrait of the Author Knut Hamsun,” by Alfredo Andersen; painted in 1891.

The Use and Misuse of Yukio Mishima

The mode of death of a novelist is rarely a cause for concentrated attention by a public beyond that of his or her readership. When, on November 25, 1970, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima died, it was in a manner that made an impression on the cultural world quite out of proportion to his diminutive physical stature.

On that date, Mishima, accompanied by several subordinates in his private militia, stormed into the Tokyo headquarters of the Jieitai, the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and took a general hostage. He then demanded an audience with the assembled soldiers from the attached garrison. When this was granted, he called for them to throw off the post-WWII ‘Peace Constitution’ of 1947 and return Japanese sovereignty to the Emperor.

The soldiers, young men already a quarter-century from the nationalist Japan of the pre-war period, jeered him. He cajoled them, to no avail. Finally, in disgust, he shouted the traditional salute of nationalist Japan—Tenno Heika Banzai! (Long Live the Emperor!)—and returned to the room where the general was held hostage by his compatriots. There, he committed seppuku, the samurai form of ritual suicide, disemboweling himself with a dagger. The rite was botched, however, by his second or kaishakunin, whose job it was to behead Mishima with a single blow from a sword immediately upon completion of the abdominal cut. His first strike landed on Mishima’s back, and two more were needed to remove his head from his body, before the kaishakunin himself was beheaded by another member of the militia group.

Mishima’s final act–not only the suicide but the effort to rouse the troops and bring about a popular uprising—was a total disaster by any reasonable estimate. But owing solely to this spectacular, scandalous end, his reputation in some circles of both left and right grew and evidence for this can still be found a half-century later. Most of his political admirers on the right—at least if my own anecdotal experience interacting with them online is indicative of anything–have read little of his writing. But it is there, if anywhere, that we must look for evidence if we want to evaluate his contribution to conservative ideology.

Mishima wrote a voluminous amount over a career of a quarter-century, but it is the work of his last five years that is most relevant for our purposes. In 1965, he began work on a multi-volume novel, titled The Sea of Fertility, that dealt with one remarkable individual incarnated four times in different human forms. Each incarnation is personally known by another character, Honda, who appears in every volume of the novel and reflects through the various reincarnations of his friend on the meaning of human life. In August of 1967, after the completion of the first volume, Spring Snow, Mishima wrote a short interpretive commentary on Hagakure, a classic text from the early 1700s on bushido, the samurai code of war and ethics. This work displayed Mishima’s interest in the traditional principles that informed the Japanese warrior class during the country’s feudal period. A central theme emphasized in his commentary is the superiority of honor to mere survival. A vision of one’s own death should be before one’s eyes daily, as the samurai pledged, in situations of uncertainty during battle, to choose always to wade into the fray and embrace death rather than calculate and strategize to survive solely for the sake of surviving.

The next year, 1968, Mishima completed both the second novel of the tetralogy, Runaway Horses, and an autobiographical book that may well be the key text in understanding his view of life, art, and politics, Sun and Steel. Runaway Horses told the tale of the reincarnation of Kiyoaki, the male in the couple from Spring Snow, as Isao, a militant student who carries out an act of political violence Mishima closely modeled on an historical event. In 1877, a group of former samurai revolted against the Meiji government and what they saw as the Westernizing influence it represented, striking against military and political targets until the authorities brutally put them down. Several of the rebels committed seppuku rather than be taken by the enemy. Isao engages in a similar plot, killing a businessman who represents the destruction of traditional Japan for profaning a religious shrine, then, at the novel’s culmination, taking his own life by the samurai rite as the sun rises before him and the police close in. This novel is perhaps the most striking literary document Mishima ever produced. The dramatic narrative is enthralling, and Isao is a compellingly committed character, precisely because Mishima has written him in such a way as to present his actions as more purely rooted in a traditional ethic than was likely the case in the author’s own ostensibly similar final act.

Sun and Steel describes autobiographically Mishima’s commencement, in his third decade of life, of the ascetic and aesthetic regime of physical training that he presented as his modern effort to reinvigorate bushido. Here and in the commentary on Hagakure Mishima expresses abhorrence of the way the American presence in Japan was corroding Japan’s unique world of beliefs and values. He also rejects the manner in which the modern division of labor has caused scholars and warriors to separate themselves one from the other with a completeness that warps both callings, and negates the very possibility for a man to fully know how to live and how to die. The writer or scholar separated from the martial practice and values, in Mishima’s analysis, can only be a flabby, weak wordsmith, and a soldier without wide reading and aesthetic cultivation will not escape vulgar barbarism.

These themes—the rejection of cultural imperialism and embrace of the organic cultural originality of each nation, and the critique of the dilution of the potency of traditional masculinity—are frequently encountered in some Western conservatisms. To this degree, Sun and Steel might be read as a properly right-wing text. Yet, much of the book is dominated by the narcissism that had marked Mishima’s personal life from his sensitive, emotionally withdrawn, and rather sickly youth. There is much evidence of the extra-political motivations for the ethic he expresses here, specifically, in his pathological and sexually perverse obsession with the violent death of young men, and especially soldiers. Physical vigor and fearless disdain of death are presented as values here, but they are corrupted by the deep nihilism that infects the entire text. The ethic of Sun and Steel accepts and even longs for annihilation in the void.

This nihilism is made apparent in the final two major books he wrote prior to his death. Throughout 1969, Mishima worked on the third novel in The Sea of Fertility collection, The Temple of Dawn, which is dedicated to a lengthy discourse on religion, specifically the doctrine of reincarnation that informs the entire tetralogy. The Kiyoaki/Isao character reappears here as Ying Chan, a young Thai princess who dies, like the earlier two incarnations of the same individual, at the age of 20, this time from the bite of a cobra. The last year of Mishima’s life was dedicated largely to completion of the final volume, The Decay of the Angel, which was mailed to the publisher on the very morning of the assault on the Tokyo military compound. In this final novel of The Sea of Fertility, Honda returns as an old man to visit his friend Kiyoaki’s mistress from Spring Snow, Satoko, who is now an old woman and the abbess of a nunnery. To his astonishment, Satoko claims never to have known anyone meeting Kiyoaki’s description. Honda’s entire worldview and his sense of his own identity melt away to nothingness: “If there was no Kiyoaki, then there was no Isao. There was no Ying Chan, and who knows, perhaps there has been no I.” The novel concludes with Honda being led by Satoko to a sunlit garden, where cicadas call and carnations bloom, “a place that had no memories, nothing.”

This nothingness is where the Western conservative necessarily takes his leave of Mishima as a political theorist, even if he might yet find aesthetic value in the brilliant literary expression of an ethic that he finds so personally unacceptable. The goal of human striving as the nothingness of escape from the cycle of rebirths is an Eastern value with no resonance in our traditions.

The culture of the Christian West—not the materialist consumer culture Mishima despised in its imperial strangulation of Japan, but rather the West’s traditional culture of order and faith—offers another way toward the purity of action Mishima described in his writing, and Mishima himself recognized the fact. In his commentary on Hagakure, he cites Toynbee favorably on Christianity’s power to “gather…so many avid converts so suddenly…because these people had fervently wished for a goal worth dying for.” Purity of action is, according to Hagakure, the only value in human life worth pursuing. The outcome of the action—success or failure in external terms–is purely secondary to that fundamental. It perhaps would not have escaped Mishima’s attention that some number of those early Christians to whom he affirmatively alludes were the first martyrs of the faith, who, hearing their captors tell them that if they would but make a sacrifice to one of the Roman idols their transgressions as Christians would be forgiven, haughtily shook their heads and walked to the stake or the crucifix to die—not to cease existing, but to refuse the very power of death. Later, on numerous occasions, many took up arms to defend their church and their civilization against cultural invaders at least as formidable as the ones Mishima opposed.

Mishima’s nihilism posits non-existence as the final goal toward which political action—indeed, all action—moves. Western conservatism, at least insofar as it is infused with the spiritual energy of the chief religious system of the West, defies this void and, in the manner so eloquently expressed by Miguel de Unamuno, overcomes it in its furious willful refusal to come to terms with mortality. The dangers of Mishima’s ethic are only too apparent: empty, narcissistic embrace of death for the sake of nothing more than death itself. Our danger in the West is something quite different: it is the quietism that can descend upon us when we are too assured of the gift of immortality. The victory over death is not given passively in our tradition. It must be won through furious striving, even if the striving is only internal. And even a solely internal striving will inevitably and necessarily lead to action in the world when others attempt forcibly to rob us of the cultural scaffolding within which such spiritual pursuits are taken as the highest good. When cultural decay erodes the space within which such striving is to take place, men will have to act, or the striving will die along with the culture that envelops and shelters it.

The ethic from which Western conservatism draws its deepest inspiration is evidently more consistent with the furious striving of humankind than nihilist aestheticism such as that we find in Mishima. It must not however forget the physical vigor and the fervent desire so vividly expressed in his literary work. Of course, it is not the specific form of Mishima’s action—a ritual suicide—that might inspire Western conservatism. It is the principle of the pursuit of vigorous action that is worshipful of honor and tradition. In the West, too much of what is left of our religious tradition today fails in its inability to provide real motivation for courageous action in resistance to the cultural demolition of our traditions, and one can see the results in the ranks of young men on the contemporary right who contemptuously reject forms of passive, feminized Christianity that offer no space for vigorous, masculine affect and action. Too much of contemporary Western Christianity in its more liberal forms has effectively embraced the secularizing processes that have led, in the United States specifically and throughout much of the West more generally, toward the same kind of cultural suicide to which Mishima’s Japan fell victim after the conclusion of World War II. Here, though, it is not an external military conqueror who oversees the death of our own traditional culture, but rather a deeply radical internal cultural elite who impose on the country an anemic, destructive doctrine of multiculturalist pluralism in a manner only slightly less vigorous than the occupying American pressure on Japan post-WWII.

I remember, long ago, when I was a young student just discovering Mishima’s writing, seeing a wheat-pasted poster on the wall of a building on the university campus where I was enrolled, put there by some radical leftist student group or another. It read “No Guts, No Revolution.” I thought then and now that this is a call to action that might be admired by conservatives, even if the revolutionary goal is abhorred. From the combination of our own cultural ideals and the Hagakure-inspired ethic of Yukio Mishima, the American right might perhaps fashion our own such slogan: “No Guts, No Counter-Revolution.”


Alexander Riley is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. He writes at Substack.


Featured: Yukio Mishima delivers a speech on the balcony of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) building in Tokyo, before committing Harakiri with a short sword, on November 25, 1970.

Yukio Mishima: The Pen and the Sword

If Yukio Mishima remains a key figure in Japanese literature and beyond, it is undoubtedly because he was able to weave a perfectly fitting samurai costume. The writer rejected the mechanization and modernization of Japan to the death. He embodies the spirit of sacrifice in the service of an age-old aesthetic and a nationalism rooted in the smoldering ruins of imperial Japan.

On November 25, 1970, after submitting the manuscript of his tetralogy to his publisher, The Sea of Fertility, and its fourth part, The Decay of the Angel (a somewhat clumsy translation after Marguerite Yourcenar, who suggested “the rotten angel”), Mishima went to the Ministry of the Army accompanied by three of his disciples. He took the General Commander-in-Chief of the Self-Defense Forces hostage and had the troops summoned. He made a speech in favor of traditional Japan and Emperor Hirohito. Very quickly, he was forced to give up in front of the hostile reaction of the soldiers. He then proceeded to his ritual suicide by seppuku, following the tradition of bushido (“the way of the warrior”), and was decapitated by one of his acolytes. More than a ritual suicide, it was a real ritualized and theatrical killing, because it was filmed and photographed. Until death, Kimitake Hiraoka remained Yukio Mishima; that is to say an artist, the “Japanese Jean Cocteau,”, as he was sometimes nicknamed. Marguerite Yourcenar even said that “Mishima’s death is one of his works and even the most prepared of his works.”

Born in 1925 in Tokyo, Mishima appears both as an anachronism, and as a synthesis of European and Japanese classical genius. It was perhaps even in the European classical genius that he found a hope to rectify a Japan that was modernizing (he wrote mainly in the 1950s and 1960s) and Americanizing at full speed (the country is a quasi-American protectorate since the Japanese defeat following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Mishima was therefore undoubtedly the last samurai of Japan. This is how he thought of himself, paying homage through his book on Japan and the Samurai aesthetic, a critical essay on Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure. He was the last to have cultivated this synthesis of the literate spirit and the cult of the body.

Mishima’s Obsession with Death

Mishima was haunted by the idea of death as a memory. This can be seen in three major facts: the first is the memory of burned Tokyo, which did not begin to haunt him until many years after the end of the war. This vision, as well as the two American nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, influenced Mishima’s entire generation, down to today, in cinema and literature. The bombings forged the relationship of the Japanese to the war, to the foreigner and to this brand new nuclear energy, in the Kaiju films, starting with the first of them, directed by Ishiro Honda in 1954, Godzilla (Gojira/ ゴジラ in Japanese).

Then, this culture of death also influenced and nourished him through his fascination with figures of European classicism—how can we forget the striking photo of Mishima as Saint Sebastian, hands tied, pierced with arrows, the body tense and muscular?

In the end, it was in the cult of the way of the samurai that he was able to find a means out of a Japan in decline. Mishima, a fearful, solitary child, refusing the modern Japan that was thrust on him, nevertheless decided to be a samurai of his time, the only authentic way for him to go his way and go to his end; by refusing modernization and mechanization, he chose the time and the way of his death. Between the code of chivalry, philosophy and religion, doesn’t the Hagakure say “I understood that the way of the warrior is death?” Every day, he “followed the way” and trained with a sword, even though the use of swords was forbidden at the end of the Edo period.

Therefore, how can we not understand his distress and anger, especially through his novel After the Banquet, which denounces the vanity of the behavior of the new Japanese bourgeoisie and especially the parliamentary system that Mishima hated. Similarly, in his novella, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, he evokes themes of traditional Japan—beauty, ugliness and community.

In 25 years, Mishima wrote about a hundred works: plays, short stories, novels, essays. This is not the work of a man lost in an era that is not his own, wandering aimlessly, but that of a man who realizes that feudal Japan and the samurai are no more.

The Samurai and the Martyr: A Sense of Duty and Self-Improvement

But Mishima is also the paradoxical synthesis between Japanese samurai education and European classical literature. He loved Racine, Balzac, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and many others. In his quest for excellence and, again, for a lost ideal, since Europe had stepped into the midst of industrial and mechanical modernity, Mishima found a bridge in the figure of Saint Sebastian. Indeed, the Christian martyr, like the samurai, dies when his time has come, without shirking. Yamamoto Jōchō, in his Hagakure, writes: “True courage consists in living when it is right to live, and dying when it is right to die,” insisting precisely on the necessity to do one’s duty and not to run away from death. If the deep reason for Mishima’s morbid and almost erotic fascination with Saint Sebastian remains to be determined, the link between self-sacrifice and surpassing oneself, dear to the martyr and the samurai, undoubtedly enabled him to create this character, which is now almost mythical.


Antoine Pizaine is a historian, monarchist and Maurrassian. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

John Locke’s Blank Slate and the Unique Development of Children’s Literature in the West

There is an elective affinity—a relationship of reciprocal attraction and mutual reinforcement—between (a) John Locke’s argument that a child’s mind initially resembles an “empty cabinet” or a “white paper void of all characters,” which can be shaped by controlling the education impressed upon the child’s mind, and (b) the origins of a literature specifically written for children in the 1700s in England. John Locke’s pedagogical book, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), with its thesis that “children’s minds” could be shaped “from without” by “those who have children or the charge of their education,” became “the moving spirit of the eighteenth century.” Samuel Pickering documents in his book, John Locke and Children’s Books in Eighteenth Century England (1981), the influence of Locke on the “form, theme, content, and diction” of early children’s literature. Pickering does not, however, draw connections between Locke’s blank slate thesis and the development of children’s literature. Below I will outline the history of children’s literature as a singularly Western phenomenon that calls for an appreciation of Locke’s blank slate thesis. The focus will be on English and American books, where the influence of Lockean philosophy was greatest, though we should keep in mind that other European nations were originating children’s literature. Folk tales, superstitions, songs, legends—that taught and entertained children—have been common throughout the world. Before the early 1700s, however, there were no books written specifically for children.

Children’s literature undergoes momentous changes in content and theme in the course of time as the West finds itself in a state of continuous modernization and cultural change, driven by new concepts of childhood: from purely instructional stories with practical advice in the 1600s, along with evangelical stories to keep the innate moral sinfulness of children contained, through to stories after 1700 offering both knowledge and recreation that encouraged children to be virtuous and kind to animals. From books in the early 1800s teaching middle-class children the values of thrift, hard work, and family uprightness, through to sentimental stories about the harsh lives of poor Victorian children, and stories encouraging the predilection of children for fantasy and imagination after the 1850s. From stories about heroes and the virtues of loyalty, pluck, and resourcefulness at the time of British imperial greatness, coupled with the rise of girl’s stories to prepare them to be wives and mothers during late Victorian times, through to stories about the unchanging trials of adolescent sexuality after WWII, combined with science fiction and comic books, to a new agenda of political correctness in matters of sex and race from the 1990s onwards, which brings about a degradation in the quality of children’s literature as it becomes a weapon aimed at indoctrinating children into accepting “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The Beginnings of Blank-Slate Children

Among conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who believe that humans are born with innate biological drives that explain their behaviors, motivations, and intellectual aptitudes, Locke’s blank slate argument is today dismissed as a major error driving the Left’s ideology that humans are malleable creatures who can be easily “reimagined” or “reconstructed” anyway one chooses. Everyone knows about the nature versus nurture debate. But what many on the dissident right have not paid due attention to, preoccupied as they have been with the science of genetics, is that the blank slate proponents, for all the “refutations” they have faced in the writings of such prominent scholars as E.O Wilson and Steven Pinker, have taken complete command of children’s books across all the schools, libraries, and publishing houses of the Western world.

They managed to do so because the West has been demolishing its “innate ideas” for centuries now, its kinship-based institutions and norms, its customs, folkways, and traditional religious beliefs. The in-group psychology dominating all traditional societies was fundamentally altered in Europe into increasingly individualistic habits of thinking and behaving as Europeans started demolishing their kinship institutions from the Middle Ages onwards, by prohibiting cousin and polygynous marriages and promoting monogamous nuclear families. This released Europeans from their kin-based obligations and encouraged them to choose their spouses, social friends and associates, which opened the door to the creation of voluntary (civic) associations, chartered towns, guilds, universities, monasteries, and representative institutions based on contractual agreements. Kinship was no longer determining the “innate” identities and norms of Europeans, their ascribed status and obligations, their sense of right and wrong, their normative relationships between family members, what values should be transmitted to children, what is sacred and what is profane.

European institutions and associations were now based on civic norms chosen by anonymous individuals on their own initiative. However, for a long time, through the medieval era, Christianity continued to act as a major collective source guiding Europeans in their families, education, and overall social life. But as modern Europeans began to talk about the “natural rights” of individuals to choose their own values and happiness within an increasingly commercialized society, the traditional values of the Church started losing their influence, particularly after the Enlightenment. This led to the expansion of the blank slate interiors of Europeans, and the rise of ideologies contesting over which values should command the lives of individuals. The West is indeed unique among civilizations in the origination of ideologies proposing a complete remaking of society: liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, feminism, fascism. Non-Western societies are innately based on their millennial traditions. The West became ideological during the French Revolution as a new intelligentsia consciously set out to remake society anew. Even conservatives became ideologues when they realized they could not restore the old monarchical order and the old aristocratic class, but had to accept the liberal principle of equality of civic rights and modern industrial development—if they were to preserve in a new form some traditional values. Western liberalism (which gradually came to include many sub-isms within itself, including modern conservatism) eventually defeated the two major contenders for power, fascism and communism, proclaiming the “end of history” in the 1990s.

In the England that Locke was born, a relatively new liberal society where parliamentary rule had displaced monarchical authority, and where the nation would increasingly come to be seen as a contractually-based covenant among anonymous individuals with natural rights, rather than based on kinship in-group loyalties, it made sense to reject innate ideas. The classical liberal disposition to accept nothing as true unless it was validated by one’s “impartial” rational judgment, amplified the intellectual creativity of the West. Painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, and novelists were encouraged to rely on their individual aesthetic judgments in the pursuit of the highest forms of beauty and literary expressions.

For all their individualism, however, modern Europeans, until recent decades, remained attached to their national heritage, creating nations based on a collective sense of history, memories, and ethnic identity. Christian traditional values continued to play a big role in the parenting and education of children through to the twentieth century. The liberal ideas of Locke were not calling for a world without any traditions and common heritage; his liberalism was sensibly aimed at encouraging the initiative, curiosity, and knowledge of children, in a world where formal schools for children were just beginning and most instruction was religiously oriented and paternalistic. Locke argued with reason that education should not be despotic and coercive but should account for the individual characteristics of children, encouraging their interest in knowledge, while disciplining their habits without indulging their subjective whims.

The Impact of Locke in the 1700s

There were books for children before Locke: The Petit Schole (1587) taught the rudiments of English spelling; A Method, or Comfortable Beginning for all Unlearned (1570) was about how to teach reading; and, before these two, there was Caxton’s Book of Curtesye (1477) about piety, neatness, honoring one’s parents. Children enjoyed some adult books, such as Plutarch’s Lives of heroic Greeks and Romans, the adventure, the great deeds, and the anecdotes. Richard Mulcaster’s Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (1581) actually encouraged laughter among children and the importance of exercise and games. Locke later elaborated upon this view, urging that education should involve “Play and Recreation” as a means of getting “continued Attention” from children, engaging the “liking of Children” for learning, which is “one of the hardest Tasks.” Children should be free to choose how they play, so they discover their individual tempers, inclinations and aptitudes.

But while England awaited Locke’s “monumental educational influence” in the early 1700s, it was the “Good Godly Books” by Puritans that constituted the greater part of books for or about children. There was a “flood of Puritan books” in the 1600s. Puritans advocated literacy among the young for two interconnected reasons: they believed that individuals should have direct access to the Bible and that encouraging children to read didactic literature was an excellent way to rescue them from their sinful impulses. “Play and idleness” gave children time for devilish temptations without fomenting an upright character. (The historian Percy Muir makes the revealing observation that “the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature lists no children’s books of a recreational kind before 1671”). A good example of Puritanism in books was James Janeway’s A Token for Children: being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of several young Children, published in 1671. In this book, abstinence from all forms of playfulness was insisted upon, with constant reminders to the parents of the inherent tendency of their children to sin, and the need to raise children guarded against the temptations of Satan by reading the Scripture. The same, however, cannot be said about John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). While this book was not intentionally written for children, it was widely read in the nursery and annexed by children as an adventure story about giants and fabulous monsters, sword contests, and a hero overcoming ill fortune. It has been said that Bunyan provided amusement, if “unintentionally”, and that he preferred to persuade children into righteousness instead of frightening them.

It was in the early 1700s that books expressly written for children came onto the market, guided by the Lockean conception that children were not born with original sin but resembled an “empty cabinet” that could be shaped according to their education. This Lockean idea was reinforced by a “new sensibility” attributed to Rousseau’s educational novel Émile, written in 1762, which argued that the natural state of being of children should be valued in itself, rather than viewed as an inferior state requiring the immediate imposition of adult ways. This emphasis on the “natural” ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling of children would eventually encourage the writing of books aimed at nurturing the unique imagination of children.

With the gradual modernization of Britain, there was a growing focus on the educational maturation of children. Up until about 1750, roughly speaking, almost one-third of young people died before 15 years of age. Coping with such regular deaths in their households, combined with the need to have young adults help with farming and craftsmanship, parents barely had time to think about their children’s education. But with improvements in agriculture, the rate of infant mortality started to decline very slowly but steadily through the 1700s, making parents more optimistic about the prospects of their children surviving into adulthood and the importance, accordingly, of an education in an emerging urban Britain where a vocational profession was important. Sunday schools that taught reading and writing and some arithmetic were growing in great numbers during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1800 there were 2,000 such schools, with about 10 percent of children between the ages of five and eighteen enrolled. By 1818 some 450,000 children were being educated in Sunday schools.

Apart from books aimed at preparing middle-class children for social accomplishment, such as Circle of the Sciences series (1745), an encyclopedia published by John Newbery about grammar, arithmetic, geography, we see a growing emphasis on books that taught moral and religious principles in a more light-hearted, liberal manner, acknowledging playfulness in children’s learning. A popular book was Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749), about a girls’ village school with a teacher of virtuous character who tells her students that “the true use of books is to make you wiser and better.” A book that inspired a whole genre was The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), by an anonymous author, about a “do-gooder,” a poor orphan girl named Margery Meanwell, who goes through life with only one shoe until a rich man gives her a pair, and she tells everyone she has “two shoes,” and then becomes a teacher and marries a rich widower, with the story showing that virtue is rewarded.

A woodcut of the eponymous Goody Two-Shoes from the 1768 edition of the novel.

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke encouraged parents to teach their children kindness to animals, warning that “the Custom of Tormenting and Killing of Beasts, will, by Degrees, harden their Minds even towards Men.” This outlook occasioned a debate about the contrasting natures of humans and animals, whether animals had souls, how should the Christian doctrine of universal charity be applied to animals, with the consensus being that while animals should not be elevated above humans, they should be put to death only when “necessary either for the food or convenience of man” without cruelty. Thomas Boreman’s Gigantick Histories (1740), which would eventually comprise a series of ten separate volumes, was endearing to children in its depiction of animals, with stories about lions, tigers, and leopards, all of which Boreman described and illustrated with woodcuts. A book viewed as “the most representative of children’s books”, in which animals began to be sentimentalized, is Sarah Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories (1786). The book emphasizes the virtue of social hierarchy, according to which parents are above children in their authority, humans above animals in terms of dominion and compassion, while conveying the message that kindness to animals during childhood can lead to universal benevolence adulthood.

It would take all our space to describe the onrush of children’s books during this period. One of the first and most prolific publishers of books for children and juveniles was John Newbury, who consciously followed Locke in his decision to link “a Knowledge of the Letters” to “Play and Recreation.” The first book he published, in 1744, was A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer, identified by some as “the first children’s book in history,” consisting of simple rhymes for each of the letters of the alphabet. Newbury “paid great attention to every detail” in the preparation of children’s books, “the titles, heroes, reputed authors, price, size, binding and pictures were scrupulously attended to.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Europeans invented childhood in the late 1700s as they started showing a keen interest in the individuality and personality of children. Prior to this time, children were depicted as small adults in their clothing, postures, and facial expressions. The appearance of boys at school was that of a “small-size adult;” it was only at the end of the 1700s that “special dress for children began to appear.” Children were expected to think and behave as mature people at about the same age as our children today embark on their primary education. In late 18th-century Britain one sees a new artistic interest (headed by the British) in young children, aimed at bringing out the distinctiveness of childhood. Children had their own identity already as infants. The paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) are very important in this respect. Art historian Ann Higonnet described this new artistic phenomenon as the invention of the innocence of childhood. It was this innocence that defined the distinctiveness of children, as conveyed by one of Reynolds’s child portraits entitled “The Age of Innocence.” An innocent child’s body was “defined by its difference from adult bodies.” The stages of maturation of children came to be clearly defined sometime between 1780 and 1820: between the infant and the child, the child and the adolescent, with authors delineating the specific educational needs for these stages.

Sir Joshua Reynolds “The Age of Innocence” (1785 or 1788).

Ellenor Fenn, author of numerous books, stated that “if you expect children to read with spirit and propriety they must be supplied with lessons suited to their taste, that is, prattle, like their own.” Fenn is now acknowledged “as an early advocate of child-centered teaching strategies.” A follower of Locke, she opined that “if the mind be a rasa tabula—you to whom it is entrusted should be cautious what is written upon it.” Her most popular book, Cobwebs to Catch Flies (1783), a reading primer, which consciously differentiated between reading age groups, with parts of the book aimed for children from three to five years, and later parts of the book aimed for those from five and eight. The book met children at their own age, experiences and interests, in how it addressed toys, pets, games, visits to the fair and other subjects.

Chapbooks, Fairy Tales, Robinson Crusoe

The first books written for the delight of children in rural poor homes were “chapbooks,” that is, half penny sheets covering a range of subjects from alphabet books and religious stories and prayers, to legends of ordinary folk, short biographies, heroic tales, crime news, songs and jests, and nursery rhymes, such as “Who Killed Cock Robin” and “Little Tommy Tucker,” miraculous or ghost stories, prophecies and fortune-telling, battle or adventure. Fables have always been the oral possession of the illiterate. The development of these fables and fairy tales into books began in the early 1700s. The Histories, or Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose (1729) was a translation of a book originally published in 1697 in the French, a collection of children’s tales including “Blue Beard,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” These stories were original adaptations in prose of preexisting medieval folk tales.

It is worth mentioning that, while folk tales are common to all cultures, being anonymous stories that communities passed through the generations by word of mouth, Europeans started a literary scholarship of folklore, collecting and writing down in published form these tales during the seventeenth century. The Grimm brothers, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), with their background in philology, meticulously recorded the tales exactly as the people told them, writing down every variation, publishing 86 fairy tales in 1812, and 217 unique tales by 1857. Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), a Danish author, not only collected tales but wrote dozens of original fairy tales—The Tinder-Box, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl—leading some to argue that he invented the literary fairy tale of pure fantasy about magical characters, such as wizards, elves, trolls, gnomes, goblins. By 1800, book publishing had increased substantially with one catalogue listing 213 “amusing and instructive books for young minds.” Many were adaptations for children of well-known tales, such as Mother Bunch’s Fairy Tales (1773), or nursery rhymes, Mother Goose Melodies, lullabies, and stories about animals, such as The Dog of Knowledge (1801), or The Adventures of a Bullfinch (1809). The most popular children’s book was The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog (1805), by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826), selling over 10,000 copies, about a male dog who is mischievous and a female cat who helps with various chores around the house.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was intended for an adult readership but soon educationists pointed to the pedagogical merit of this story, and its compatibility with Lockean pedagogical theory, providing “instruction with delight.” The New Robinson Crusoe: An Instructive and Entertaining History, for the Use of Children of Both Sexes by Joachim Heinrich Campe, published in 1788, was the earliest Crusoe for children, with countless children’s versions appearing over the years. Rousseau argued that Crusoe should be a primary text to raise children “above vulgar prejudices” and encourage them to form their own judgments by imagining themselves as “solitary adventurers” in a natural state, building their own life in circumstances of real utility. Today, Robinson Crusoe, is condemned as a story that “upholds a racist ideology of white supremacy.” Crusoe was certainly the embodiment of European individualism, the Lockean ideal of recreating society and oneself out of a blank slate, the quest to become one’s own. According to Ian Watts, Robinson Crusoe was the first true novel in history in not taking its plot from mythology, or history, or from previous literary genres; the first story thoroughly preoccupied with the primacy of individual experience rather than general human types, giving attention to minute details of ordinary life, with a highly introspective character where almost every action is a subject of self-examination, a monologue, centered around Crusoe’s feelings, beliefs, fears, judgments—in isolation, the self as master.

Victorian Morals, Imagination, and Sentimentalism

In the first decades of Victorian England, 1820-1850, children’s books reflected the ideology of the new middle classes: “modesty and moderation, prudence and self-help, respectability and thrift”—a combination of Puritan morality and self-reliance. The father was still the head and the role of the mother was to attend to the moral well-being of the family, which on average consisted of 4 or 5 children brought up on strict gender-based roles, with the sons expected to prepare for success in the public sphere and the daughters to become ladylike in preparation for a married life, though women did play a public role, becoming prominent writers of children’s books.

Barbara Hofland’s writing drew on the hardships of her own life as a widow and during her second marriage to an artist without money; in The Blind Farmer and his Children (1816), and Elizabeth and her Three Beggary Boys (1833), she depicted families struggling under hard circumstances (death of parents, bankruptcy) yet prevailing due to their moral integrity and Christian ways. The women in her tales showed strength not by condemning Victorianism (she was a firm advocate of marriage) but by showing strength as wives and widows, even if it meant having to set up their own businesses in the face of the father’s bankruptcy. Victorian “rigidity” however saw more than didactic moral tales. Harriet Mozley’s The Fairy Bower (1841) and Family Adventures (1852) portrayed children as they are rather than as mere vehicles for adult expectations, enjoying jokes, skating, and arguing about the propriety of their own behaviors. Peter Parley’s Magazine, an English children’s magazine published monthly from 1839 to 1863, contained articles about history, travel, animals, and moral tales about school boys, wicked uncles and other subjects, colorfully illustrated, aiming to instruct and please children.

There were adventure stories about overcoming ordeals, such as The Settlers at Home, by Harriet Martineau, in which a land is flooded, with mills and barns floating away, farm animals drowning, and everyone in great peril…four children are deprived of their mother and father…the two-year-old baby dies, and they have various struggles for survival…until they are rescued. Frederick Marryat’s The Settlers in Canada (1844) was about the adventures of an immigrant English family threatened by “Red Indians” and wild animals. His The Children of the New Forest (1847) was about 4 orphaned children during the Civil War, taught by a forester how to survive by hunting and farming. This age of realism and railways was also an age of the “romantic rediscovery of the imagination.” In addition to numerous new versions of Grimm’s folktales, and translations of Andersen’s tales into English, original works of fantasy were written, most notably Phantasmion (1837) by Sara Coleridge, a story of a prince who embarks on a journey, taunted and manipulated by mysterious spirits, and finally triumphs over the forces of darkness after multiple trials.

From its Puritan beginnings in the 1700s to 1870, American children’s literature experienced significant cultural shifts reflecting changed perceptions of childhood. Between 1650s-1750s children’s books were for instruction and a Puritan upbringing—to fight ignorance, the “mother of heresy,” and to restrain children’s “inborn depravity.” A widely read book was The New England Primer, published in the 1680s, illustrated with woodcuts, in verse for easier memorization of its teachings—with its famous opening “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Thumb bibles decorated with pictures were common; one popular book was The Duty of Parents to Pray for their Children (1703) by Increase Mather. The best known was John Bunyan’s English classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, of which 50 editions were published in America by 1830. Children enjoyed its strong dramatic narrative of Christian, an everyman character, journeying from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City” seeking deliverance from the burden of his sins. Many new titles came out after 1750s: one publisher in Massachusetts published more than 100 titles between 1775 and 1800.

While the 1800s saw a gradual shift “away from the spiritual intensity” of Puritanism “toward a more generalized moralism,” the typical children’s story before 1850 did not encourage fantasy or imagination: the focus was on moral character, not entertainment. The Story of Jack Halyard (1824) was intended “to give an account of one family of superior excellence, as a model to others.” After 1850, a new kind of writing emerged, giving “childhood a value in and by itself,” an idealized perception of childhood expressed in sentimental stories about children “which was often put at the service of some social purpose.” The matter-of-fact deathbed scenes of earlier literature gave way to vivid, melodramatic narratives, such as The Angel Mother (1854), about a mother’s death and the prolonged mourning of her children. Stories of poor children, “filthy, ragged, barefoot even in winter,” such as Alice Haven’s Nothing Venture, Nothing Have (1854) about a tenement “crowded with families as poor, and as squalid as want could make them,” were common. With the rise of cities, there was a focus on secular subjects and characters: shopkeepers, newsboys, Italian boys singing on the streets for pennies. Series books in magazines were launched, adventure tales for boys. Horatio Alger was best known for his “rags-to-riches” stories of boys rewarded for hard work, acts of bravery or kindness. The most beloved book was Little Women by Louisa Alcott, about the fortunes of four sisters in their passage to young womanhood, which inspired numerous films.

Golden Age in England and America

The history of children’s literature points to the English as the most prominent, original writers. The period 1850-1890 has been identified as a “golden age,” with writers drawing on translations of the rich repertoire of Hans Andersen’s fairy tales and fables—at the same time as Europeans came to view childhood as a crucial phase in personal development, characterized by freedom from accepted conventions, vitality of imagination, and the child’s instinctive connection to the natural world, reflecting the earliest phases of the human psyche, and thus a window to the archetypes of the unconscious. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865) is judged as possibly the most brilliant and original children’s book. By removing the controlling voice of the adult’s narrator and having children speak for themselves, Alice’s was the first to allow the child’s mind to occupy the centre, as the adult re-enters into their sense of puzzlement. Charles Kingsley’s Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore (1855) was inspired by nature walks with children, to bring out “the miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature.”

There was a sentimental belief in the child’s innate virtues, away from the earlier emphasis on original sin, characterized by a keen concern for the suffering of poor, homeless, vagrant children, the so-called “street arabs.” George Sergent’s book, Roland Leigh: The Story of a City Arab (1857), was about a small boy in the London underground abandoned even by the church. For Hesba Stretton children were society’s victims; her stories of children “starved of food and affection” were widely imitated; she popularized “baby talk.” Juliana Horatia Ewing, from a family of ten children, with a strong faith, is known for her efforts to bring out children’s feelings, closeness to one another and to their animals. Her stories, such as Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances (1869), are celebrated as the “first outstanding child-novels.”

The year 1877 saw the publication of Black Beauty, one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, written by Anna Sewell while seriously ill—about a horse dragged down by harsh masters and vain mistresses. It is an animal autobiography, in which the horse, Black Beauty, is given some human traits, such as thinking and talking, although only the readers can hear Black Beauty talking; none of the human characters in the text hear the horses, who communicate with human characters using gestures and actions. Like earlier books about animals, Black Beauty is anthropomorphic, with the horse playing the role of narrator, with the readers understanding the world through the horse’s own perspective. This story is now considered one of the first animal rights books in its exploration of the suffering faced by horses at a time before the invention of automobiles, when society depended on horses for transportation. Europeans have had a strong connection to horses since Indo-European peoples domesticated them in the Pontic Steppes during the fourth millennium, and then invented the techniques of horse riding, and chariots.

As England expanded across the world, adventure stories took off; one of the most widely known is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), a story with everything boys love: treasure, pirates, strange noises, seafaring—along with unpredictable characters, a fallible hero and a “formidable and smooth” villain. The novels of the French writer Jules Verne, “father of science fiction,” were very popular among English boys, including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), taking his readers across continents, under the oceans, through the earth, and into space. George Alfred Henry’s stories, The Dragon & The Raven (1886), For The Temple (1888), Under Drake’s Flag (1883) and In Freedom’s Cause (1885), were also enjoyed, with their blending of the extraordinary with the probable, eulogizing honesty and loyalty, pluck and resilience—with his belief that the British were unequalled in these virtues. The late nineteenth century saw a sudden attraction for boarding school stories, attuned to the different interests and experiences of boys and girls. Talbot Baines Reed was the most popular writer of boys’ fiction about rivalry over games, school boy humor, and a muscular type of Christianity—The Fifth Form at St. Dominic sold 750,000 copies in 1907. The most prolific author of girl school stories was L.T. Meade; in addition to her books for adults, Meade wrote about 150 titles for “young readers;” A World of Girls: The Story of a School (1886) was about disruptive emotions, friendship, loyalty, and jealousy, along with Victorian attitudes of traditional roles of wives and mothers.

The enfeebled liberal West you see today publishing grooming stories about transsexuals to primary school children was once continuously creative. It was so because its blank slate individualism was still sustained by traditions, solid monogamous nuclear families, the continuing presence of Christian values, patriarchal authority, and a sense of national heritage. During the late and early twentieth centuries there is a marked preoccupation with the inner world of children, not merely with childhood as distinctive phase, but in rediscovering in the interior world of children the loss of human wholeness, the dismemberment of industrialized and wealthy humans from nature, overcoming anomie and rootlessness. The Secret Garden (1911) by F.H. Burnett has been interpreted many ways. It is through a secret garden drawn from fairy tales (outside modernity) that the orphaned Mary finds consolation and reconciliation after living as a selfish and disagreeable 10-year-old girl spoiled by her servants in colonial India and neglected by wealthy British parents. Mary finds an abandoned garden where she takes her disabled 10 year-old cousin Colin to see the garden, where he manages to stand up; they plant seeds together to rejuvenate the garden, and through their interactions with nature they discover meaningfulness and happiness in life.

But confidence in Western progress and empire was not faltering for everyone; certainly not for Rudyard Kipling, in whose stories the ideals of empire and manliness are celebrated, along with the code that public schools should train boys for their future role as rulers of the empire, as in Stalky & Co. (1899), which emphasizes the aggressive competitive aspects of boarding school as a preparation for life in colonial armies. Yet, for others, the strict moralizing lessons of Victorian times were becoming outmoded. There was an emphasis both on playfulness and on nurturing the imaginations of middle-class children, as we see in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), by Robert Louis Stevenson, which describes children absorbed in imaginary “make believe” games, boys transforming their surroundings through fantasy, turning meadows into jungles and populating a desert with pythons, pumas, and kangaroos.

It is hard to identify one clear literary trend: there was too much variety, intersecting and contrasting cultural trends, from the creative minds of British authors. Kipling also wrote Just So Stories (1902), fantastical tales encouraging children to wonder how animals came to evolve. Use of parody for comic effect can be seen in E. Nesbit’s Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901). Nesbit was a founding member of the Fabian Society who gained much attention with The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), of children who overcome perils through pluck, and The Wouldbegoods (1901), about a middle-class family fallen on hard times, which found great appeal for its special touch for depicting how children truly speak, feel, and behave. Then came J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), about a boy who refused to become an adult in an ideal world of daring and courage, interacting with fairies, pirates, and mermaids in a mythical paradise. And there was also Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), a bestseller from the beginning, written in order to amuse a sick 5 year-old boy, about a rabbit, who disobeys his mother, combining humor, adventure, and a moral lesson.

In the period 1870-1914 American children’s literature is said to have “changed radically” both in the proliferation of books with greater variety of themes and characters and the high literary quality. The liberal trend to avoid “preaching” in children’s stories, in preference of amusement, story-content, and overall optimism about prospects in life and the possibility of finding happiness. Some say it was a “golden age,” characterized by such classic titles as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), by Frank Baum; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), by Mark Twain. There were other classics in their own right. One was T.B. Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy (1870), hailed as a departure in traditional children’s literature for showing boys as they were, rather than as they ought to be, which started a “bad boy” literature, of which Tom Sawyer was one, and so were C. D. Warner’s Being a Boy (1877), W.D. John Habberton’s The Worst Boy in Town (1880), and J.O. Kaler’s Toby Tyler: Or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1877). These stories, with their realistic images of boys as irrational, primitive, and masculine, attracted many readers. This genre is now criticized for encouraging “toxic masculinity” rather than “nice,” “caring,” “gender fluid,” and docile boys who listen attentively to their TikTok feminist teachers. In truth, these “bad boys” had an instinctive sense of what was right, rooted in small town America, with their own unique personalities built from hardship and assertiveness outside a standardized suburbia.

Girl school stories, or coming of age stories, were very popular. One was Margaret Sidney’s The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew (1881), about a widowed mother who has to sew all day to pay rent and feed five growing Peppers, which she does with a stout heart, a smiling face, and the help of her blue-eyed Ben, the eldest and the man of the house at the age of 11. America was still a land that celebrated independence and self-reliance, not from the standpoint of the isolated, atomistic selves, you see today addicted to social media, but within concrete local communities. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), by Kate Wiggins, was about a girl who is sent to live with her lonely aunt after her father died, to whom she brings her youthful enthusiasm and imagination, with poems and songs, selling soap to help a poor family, growing up to be a proper young lady with a kind heart.

Another book now considered a classic was Pollyanna (1913), by Eleanor Porter, with its innocent formula that we should be “glad, glad, glad” about everything however hard it may seem, a story about an orphan girl who remains positive and animated in spirit despite a hard childhood and later tribulations, spreading love and joy wherever she goes, and finding happiness in the end, thus proving that a good disposition and positive outlook can compensate for the hardships we face. This story was followed by 11 more Pollyanna sequels known as “Glad Books.” Another popular book was Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), by Frances Burnett, about a boy who lives with his “Dearest” mother in poverty after the death of his father, who then inherits a British fortune, to be sent to live with the cold and unsentimental lord who oversees the trust.

Continuing Creativity Between 1914 and 1980

The period 1914-1945 in British children’s literature is downplayed as less original than the preceding periods—but didn’t J.R. R. Tolkien author The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1937-49)? British education was still rooted in tradition, Western-centric standards, and great books. Rings drew on a combination of Christianity and Germanic heroic legend, including the Norse Völsunga Saga, the study of Old English literature, Beowulf, and on Celtic, Finnish, Slavic, and Greek mythology. Tolkien gained access to this pagan tradition in-through early Christianity, where it continued, not by resorting to some neo-pagan new age version.
The early twentieth century saw many new children’s titles: 688 in 1913, which increased to 1,629 by 1938—despite WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. They were mostly books for the comfortable middle class, not for the children of parents who participated in the General Strike of 1926, the same year the lovely story of Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne, was published, about an optimistic, not very intelligent, but friendly and steadfast, teddy bear, with many other animal characters for children to identify with, Piglet, Tigger, and Roo. The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), by Margery Williams, was another popular book about a stuffed rabbit sewn from velveteen who becomes a boy’s favorite toy…but is thrown out of the boy’s house to become a real rabbit that the boy then encounters in the wild, showing how toy rabbits become real through the affection and imagination of children. Another classic was

The Story of Babar the Little Elephant (1934) about a baby elephant who flees the jungle after his mother is killed and moves into a big city where he is civilized and dresses in Western attire. The West was still unwilling to devalue its imperial history. Postcolonial theory was still in the future. The Lockean call for affection towards animals had nurtured uniquely Western stories of animals that live like humans, with human qualities coupled with toys in the shape of animals like a Teddy Bear or Babar dressed up like a human.

Illustration for the Nicest Girl in School.

Long running series of stories for boys and girls were common: M.E. Atkinson’s August Adventure (1936), Elizabeth Yates’s High Holiday (1938), Francis Joyce’s Yes, Cousin Joseph (1935), and Elizabeth Brent-Dyer’s The School at the Chalet (1925) with its fifty seven sequels! The trend-setting writer of “modern schoolgirls’ stories” was the British Angela Brazil, author of some 50 boarding school books, beginning with The Fortunes of Philippa (1906). The Nicest Girl in The School (1909) sold 153,000 copies. Brazil was raised by a mother critical of the “traditionalism” persisting in Victorian English schooling, determined to raise her children according to the Lockean principle that children who experience a liberal education in literature, music, and science will become creative and nurturing. Notwithstanding the prior influence of Locke in intellectual circles and in the writing of children’s books, a traditional moralism continued to prevail in Victorian England about self-sacrifice for the nation, the moral virtues of patriarchal families, and the importance of abiding by Christian norms. Brazil’s books portrayed “independent-minded” female characters who openly challenged authority, were impertinent, enjoyed pranks, and expressed their youthfulness without worrying about the rigidified concerns of adults.

Children’s literature 1945-70 is characterized by historical realism, fantasy/science fiction, and “internationalism.” Kipling-type books eulogizing British imperial manliness gave way to books in tune with “the egalitarian, post-colonial mood” of a Britain without an empire. However, despite promotion of “international exchanges” and a few books about minorities, this period remained creative, even as it was undermining the conditions that made this creativity possible. As TV became a major form of recreation, authors came to de-emphasize this aspect of children’s books in favor of literary quality—for the newly constructed public schools and libraries. The rising literary status of children’s books is reflected in the growth of literary reviews, book awards, and new journals, such as Children’s Literature in Education. It is said that the 1950s and 1960s was “a period of exceptional artistic license for the children’s author”—because, while the prescriptive morality of the Victorian era had dissipated, the “new agenda of political correctness in matters of sex, class, and race” was still in the future, so authors were “unusually free of pressures to promote approved conformities.”

Incorporating historical research became popular. Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils (1964) integrated historical facts into stories she heard from her grandfather about family experiences during the American Civil War. Elizabeth Speare’s, Calico Captive (1957) was about a girl kidnapped by an Abenaki Indian raid on Charlestown in 1754. Jean Fritz’s book, George Washington’s Breakfast (1969) was about a boy determined to learn everything he could about his namesake, including what the first president ate for breakfast. Cynthia Harnett wrote novels, such as The Wool-Pack (1951) and The Load of Unicorn (1959), about daily life in Medieval England. Henry Treece’s The Dream Time (1967) was set in prehistory, about a boy with a bad leg cast out from his tribe because of his ability to draw wonderful (but forbidden) pictures, who embarks on a journey meeting many peoples including the last of the Neanderthals. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) uses Norse mythology to bring clarity to a child’s perception of the confusions of modern life.

Science fiction flourished. Science fiction is a modern Western genre (not to be confused with the fantasy genre) that originated as writers began to envision in the course of the industrial revolution how the world would be as technology developed continuously into the future. Its basic themes include prophetic warnings, utopian longings, imaginary worlds, titanic disasters on earth, strange voyages. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is a founder of this genre. The best children’s sci-fi books of this period include The Martian Chronicles (1950), by Ray Bradbury, a fascinating story about Americans who conquer Mars, the home of indigenous Martians, followed by the conquest of the Earth, by Martians, with the apocalyptic destruction of both Martian and human civilizations, both instigated by humans consumed by their militaristic scientific power. In contrast, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954) reflected an optimistic view about the possibilities of science, being a story about two boys who, upon reading a newspaper advertisement looking for a home built spaceship, decide to build one out of tin and scrap wood, which they then bring it to the advertiser, an inventor who makes a few improvements, gives them a special fuel, and tells them they must visit the mushroom planet, which is really a tiny habitable moon orbiting the Earth invisible to normal telescopes. This moon is covered in giant mushrooms and populated by small men with large heads and light green skin, who tell the boys that everyone on their planet is dying of a mysterious illness. The boys end up solving the natives’ problem before returning to Earth. Peter Dickinson’s trilogy, The Weather-Monger, Heartsease, and The Devil’s Children (1960/70) depict a repressive Britain in which machines are banned and people return to a primitive lifestyle. In fantasy, we must at least mention The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), a series of seven novels by C. S. Lewis, which has now sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages. These stories call upon children to imagine what would happen in a land like Narnia where the Son of God, who became a Man in our world, became a Lion, seen as a marvelous retelling of Bible stories in a new Pagan way.

Post 1970: Blank-Slate Children without Families and Civic Communities

During the 1970s there is a noticeable trend in children’s literature towards “black pride,” “female heroes,” “interracial friendship” and “empathy.” In 1965 the Saturday Review published an influential article with the title: “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” This article sounded reasonable. If the US was founded on equal natural rights, and blacks have been an intrinsic component of this nation, should they not be reflected in children’s books? This article was not attacking whites as such, but asking whether the books at the time reflected the experiences of black children. This was just the beginning, however, of what would become a massive ideological movement aimed to transform the themes and contents of children’s literature, well beyond equal civic rights. In the late 1970s, some authors of children’s books expressed concern about the “censorial imposition” of “guidelines” over the use of “non-sexist” and “non-racist” language.” These guidelines began as mere “requests for tools” to eliminate “bias” in literature and include nonwhites in stories. A few decades later these demands would be radicalized into demands across all schools for “Books to Teach White Children and Teens How to Undo Racism and White Supremacy“.

The time was ripe for the complete indoctrination of children. Children were becoming more isolated than ever, as the nuclear family, the last bastion of blood identity, the “All-American Family” eulogized in the 1950s, was discredited as the US started to “embrace more progressive politics”. This was a time when the divorce rate started to rise, and a growing proportion of young adults began to postpone and then forgo marriage altogether. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), Robert Putnam noted a dramatic decline, from the mid-1960s onwards, in membership and number of volunteers across a wide spectrum of civic organizations, such as religious groups, labor unions, parent–teacher associations, military veterans’ organizations, volunteers with Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, and fraternal organizations. In other words, liberalism was now undermining the very civic (contractually created) communities it had created in place of the old kinship tribal communities. A few years later, Putnam released the results of a comprehensive survey of over 30,000 respondents around the US, in which he “found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.”

The minds of children were emptied more than ever of any traditions, family experiences, and even attachments to liberal-created civic communities. Not surprisingly “chronic loneliness” is now “a modern-day epidemic,” with “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers increasing 70 percent in the past 25 years.” Children today are incredibly vulnerable to ideological manipulation, which has coincided with a massive increase in the number of new children’s book published in the US: from 2,001 in 1971 to 3,214 in 1979, and to 6,154 in 1991, and then to 21,878 new titles in 2009. It is not that good writers disappeared after 1970. Richard Adams’s highly popular Watership Down (1972) was an old-style animal adventure story in which a small band of male rabbits with their own history, language and mythology set out to start a new warren, facing numerous hardships, rescuing female rabbits from an evil rabbit to bring them to their warren, living happily ever after. Roald Dahl, author of the famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and numerous stories told from the point of view of a child’s imagination, also wrote The Witches (1983), criticized today for its “misogyny,” a dark fantasy featuring experiences of a boy and his grandmother in a world where child-hating societies of witches secretly exist in every country.

High quality historical fiction continued through the 1970s into the 1990s, even as it came increasingly with some PC motivations. Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of many great 1960s stories, such as Outcast, which tells the story of an orphaned child in Roman Britain who is shipwrecked on a coast outside of Roman rule, continued to write excellent retellings of myths and legends, including Song for a Dark Queen (1978), about the tragic life and military campaigns of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, against the Romans. Penelope Lively’s historical fantasy novel, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973), about a ghost of a 17th-century resident, encouraged children to become aware of “layers of memory of which people are composed.” Jill Walsh’s A Parcel of Patterns (1983) is about a girl living in 1665, in a village, who tends her flock and teaches her young suitor to read, when one day a parcel of patterns, meant for a new dress for the pastor’s wife, arrives from London, carrying an infection that spreads with horrifying speed.

But the seeds of political correctness could not be stopped from giving birth to a generation of “progressive” authors. Robert Leeson’s historical trilogy, Maroon Boy, Bess, and The White Horse (1975-77), were intended to “fight against the oppression of black people, of women, and working people” in the present. The literary critic, Patrick Parrinder, stated that the aim of science fiction should be “social criticism” and the creation of a more progressive culture. Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone? (1976) was about a babysitter raped by one of the most respectable boys in town, that is, a white privileged boy. Autumn Street (1977), by L. Lowry, is a “candid and memorable” story about an interracial relationship. Again, these stories were still reasonable in comparison to what was about to be unleashed upon the fragile minds of children. Barbara’s Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974) is about a black boy who loses his ability to talk when he is raised by a white family because he can’t stay at his own house because his mother has gone back to Jamaica to care for her dying father—it deals with racism towards Donovan because of his immigrant Jamaican heritage. William Maynes’s Drift (1985) narrates a journey from the point of view of a white boy and then from that the view of an Indian girl with the intention of showing the “often limited quality” of the white view. Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991) is an “empowering” book about an African-American girl with the message that she can be whatever she wants to be, regardless of what other people say, if she stays true to herself as a black girl.

But increasingly in the 1990s and 2000s, books instructing children that blacks were “victims of systemic white racism” would proliferate. Unimaginative, simplistic children’s books “about race and racism” now prevail in school curricula. As the West committed itself to mass immigration, the educational establishment coordinated its efforts to fill up the blank-slate minds of children with the slogan that “diversity is our greatest strength.” Government offices, the mainstream media, the journals, everyone in charge of education, began to dictate what was “appropriate reading” for children, reaching the conclusion that the most important way to educate them was to produce “Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion.” White children needed to be raised with guilt as a means of preparing them to inhabit a diverse world with proud immigrants. With the decline of the family, demands grew against stories that assumed that monogamous nuclear families with married fathers and mothers were “normal” rather than an “illiberal” prejudice. LGBTQ books skyrocketed, coupled with a dramatic decline in the quality of children’s literature, fluffy stories calling upon white children to be “kind,” “nice,” and “empathetic” through vibrant rainbow colors.

This is not to say that good books, great fantasy stories, ceased after the 1990s. Many classic stories continued to be published. Books written under the pen name “Dr. Seuss” in the 1950s and 1960s—The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Green Eggs and Ham—gained in popularity. Who can ignore the explosive epic fantasy series that began in 1998 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, successfully adapted to blockbuster movies, a story about a wizard boy set in a magical boarding school? The Harry Potter series authored by J.K. Rowling “is far and away the highest-selling series of novels ever, selling over 500 million copies, 150 million more than the next-highest selling series.” Despite their length, many children enjoyed reading them, combined with the movies and the merchandise. Through all the wizardry and sorcery, the series emphasized standard values like friendship, humility, and bravery. Harry Potter was politically correct in its day, shining “a light on some surprisingly dark themes such as mental health and LGBT visibility.” But now the author Rowling is not so correct, provoking in recent years controversy “as a person who sees herself as a progressive due to her feminist values…but refuses to extend those values to…trans people in general.” “It’s Time for Progressives To Move On from Harry Potter,” opined Miles Schneiderman. The series, and the movies thereof, also came to be criticized for their “outrageous lack of diversity.”

It is time to embrace Marvel’s Black Panther children’s book series for “providing a lesson in diversity and representation in its celebration of black culture with an almost all-black cast.” As an “avenger of civil rights,” the “MacArthur Genius and National Book Award winner” Ta-Nehisi Coates joined the Black Panther series in 2016, contributing a number of children’s books, including A Nation Under Our Feet, a story about “the indomitable will of Wakanda—the famed African nation known for its vast wealth, advanced technology and warrior traditions.” The Guardian noted in 2019 a “seismic shift” in the number of books by and about “Blacks,” “Asians or Asian Americans,” “Latinx,” and “First Nations.” This shift is inescapably tied to immigration replacement. A heavily-funded, institutional network, with full time salaried bureaucrats, has no other motto but that we need more diverse books.

Classic books are barely read in our schools nowadays. Many of the pre-1990s books listed above only make it as subjects in literary analysis about “How to Break Up with Your Favorite Racist Children’s Books.” The list of books getting cancelled include The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn, The Little House on the Prairie, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Cinderella, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Chronicles of Narnia. The latter was cancelled on the grounds that it “takes place in the northern regions of a world composed mostly of white people.”

We could go on with this depressing conclusion to the otherwise noble history of children’s literature. The way liberalism, through to the modern era, until a few decades ago, encouraged a highly gifted genealogy of children’s stories deserves our attention and admiration. It seems that liberalism remained a creative and positive force in the West so long as it was supported by family values, continuation of traditional Christianity, and, yes, strong civic communities and associations. It is a complex subject we only covered on the surface: why are Western educators disowning their magnificent legacy of children’s literature, replacing it with contrived stories promoting the sexualization of children and hatred towards their ancestors? Was liberalism bound to culminate in this situation?


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Ein kleiner Bücherwurm” (A Little Bookworm), by Eduard Swoboda; painted ca. 1902.

Happy Days

…by Lillian Broadbridge, with the Revd Septimus Hazard, MA.

You’d never guess, I’m a poetess! That little spark of creativity has always been within me, and I felt I just had to write this, bringing back memories of the good old days when Churchill was at No. 10 and our dear Queen was young and lovely. Ah! I’m no expert poetess, I’m the first to admit, but I thought I would share it with that wonderful Rector of Prawnsby, the parish next door to Radlett and Aldenham (where we still miss Mr. Manley). My Leslie, I’m afraid, would be useless here: you don’t hear much poetry in Barclay’s Bank. Well, quick as a flash, Father Septimus (who I know likes me) replied “I would be only too enchanted, Mrs. B. Can a man with a second-class degree in divinity possibly lend you a hand? (It was from Oxford, mind!) But, revenons à nos moutons as they say across the Channel, would you like me to read your meter?” He indeed did, and was really quite gushing about my talent, as well as the deeper message of this little poem. Who knows, we may collaborate again. Without further ado…

Happy Days

There was a time when children were God-fearing,
Boys were bold and little girls endearing
When our world was wholesome, pure and true
You’d say sorry; please; or, indeed, thank you.
At table you’d neatly handle fork and knife,
Lest Mother scolded—ah, a faithful wife!
She’d put out Father’s after-office slippers,
For breakfast there’d be soldiers, even kippers.
The wireless would play a merry tune
The latest, greatest hit from Patrick Boone.
The Morris Oxford, ’twas neat as a pin
Our trusty carriage for the Sunday spin;
That same Sabbath we’d sing the Good Lord’s praise…
Oh, can’t we please bring back these happy days?

The Anglican Angle: The Revd. Septimus Hazard on Appetite, Temptation, Mastication and S-x before Marriage

In this monthly address to the Postil Magazine, I will skate on thin ice and dwell for a little while on the wise invocation in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” Temptation is a universal sentiment. There’s even a rather fine American soul group named after it. So, to quote one of their hits, “Get ready” for my sermon (what a swinging rector I am!). I myself confess I feel a pang of temptation as I pass any attractive patisserie and ogle the cream-cakes, eclairs and of course the strawberry tarts. “Naughty but nice” was the clever slogan of the English Dairy Board in the 1970s, urging us on to lick whipped cream. I don’t mind if I do!

Others, however, are led into temptation in the slightly lower, indeed baser bodily organs. The ice is now very thin, I am sailing close to the wind and the time is nigh to come clean. I confess that even a chaste soul such as myself feels a veritable pitter-patter at the thought of the Spice Girls who we see in their pomp below—the stately Posh, that scrumptious bombshell Baby Spice; now, where are my Yardley smelling salts? That’s better! Thank heaven the girls are now spoken for and married, leading I naturally hope, good Christian lives as wives and mothers.

● ● ●

It was the great Cardinal Hume—there is some good within the Roman fold I hasten to add—who advised his readers to “bite your tongue and say thanks be to God!” when you are saddened, maddened or both. For my part, I have bitten mine, indeed risked chewing it to shreds, when led into temptation—but thank goodness, that vital organ is still intact and in a position to lick and then masticate soft eclairs. I know I am in good company—St. Jerome, famously, went a lot further than me and retreated into the wilderness with his cuddly lion companion when tempted by the Spice Girls of his day, though they were scantily clad dancers rather than those superb singers.

A very great cleric of the 19th century, the Revd. F.W. Farrar, addressed the theme of bodily temptation and growing self-fulfilment, shall we say, with candour, beauty and integrity in the headmaster’s sermon in his classic novel Eric, or Little by Little (1858). It behooves me to quote him at length:

Kibroth-Hattaavah! Many and many a young Englishman has perished there! Many and many a happy English boy, the jewel of his mother’s heart—brave and beautiful and strong—lies buried there. Very pale their shadows rise before us—the shadows of our young brothers who have sinned and suffered. From the sea and the sod, from foreign graves and English churchyards, they start up and throng around us in the paleness of their fall. May every schoolboy who reads this page be warned by the waving of their wasted hands, from that burning marle of passion where they found nothing but shame and ruin, polluted affections, and an early grave.

● ● ●

Wonderful stuff, putting Hazard to shame! Though Farrar piles on the agony, he strangely failed to mention the blindness that is a well-known symptom of Kibroth-Hattaavah Syndrome. Yet his point is well made. What are the deterrents to contracting this hideous condition and resting prematurely in the churchyard of his vivid description? I would recommend a lot of good, hard praying; listening to classical music rather than to the Spice Girls; and something that my parishioner Leslie Broadbridge would recommend, dipping into your father’s back numbers of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanac, studying the utterly absorbing County Championship scorecards of the 1950s in the happy knowledge that Surrey usually won. I am open to alternative suggestions. Digging the Revd Hazard’s rose garden is a further, excellent remedy—any lucky lad in this position will earn a shining shilling and a toffee-apple for his pains, and that’s a promise!

Maintaining this risky theme, I will move on to something almost equally disturbing. Let me introduce it by recalling my own, impious youth. As a 10- or 11-year-old, having been inducted, in the classroom of my private school I hasten to add, in what was then nicely termed “the Facts of Life,” I used to get a rise out of asking conservative Radlett folk of a certain age: “What is your stand on sex before marriage?” It never failed to produce mirth for those who could stand their ground or, still more appealing to the devilish young Hazard, adult embarrassment, prevarication and even momentary rage. I was, I now realise, revelling in the permissive Zeitgeist of the 1960s. Blessed with liberal parents, I was never spanked or worse for such outrageousness.

So, what is my stand on S & M, as it were, now that I myself have attained the maturity of the adults that I had teased? “You young whippersnapper!” would probably be my chaffing response, but how should I guide my slightly older parishioners, or indeed my Confirmation class who are less confrontational than Master Hazard but equally intellectually curious? I would stress, of course, the significance of continence and restraint, and the sanctity and beauty of matrimonial bonding and attendant family life as a reward for this.

But suppose a Confirmation student, not content with this, pressed the issue? “Young Ambrose, you don’t give up easily,” I would chide gently, “But since you raise the question, intercourse prior to matrimony could well produce a bastard!” Cue for Farmer Brown’s gormless son to chip in “But Sir, my Dad was married for five years before I was born!” “Brown Minor, being a bastard is not necessarily predicated on one’s birth or even marital status!” Oh my gosh, I hope he won’t tell Pater: in retrospect I was shrewd to use complex words like “predicated” and even “marital status.” With any luck, these will probably trip up Master Brown—he certainly appeared rather baffled. A close shave, and it only goes to show how posh, affected prose is a wonderful weapon of defence against simpletons. That excellent Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg knows this too, and what an admirable successor to Boris he would make…

Well, I think I have handled three hot potatoes with some aplomb: it’s surely time for a certain Reverend Gentleman to enjoy his first gin and tonic of the day…


Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971. Any perceived resemblance between him and the Revd. Septimus Hazard is but a figment of the reader’s imagination.


Featured: “The Vicar of Wakefield: The Vicar Preaching to the Prisoners,” by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1817.

V.S. Naipaul and the Universality of Individual Freedom

There are two confused and confusing but intertwined debates that I want to address, and to do so by referring to the seemingly unlikely trio of writers, Hegel, Conrad, and Naipaul.

What are those two debates? The first and slightly older international debate is about the relation between colonial powers and their now former colonies. The second largely domestic debate is about the relation of “white” people to people of “color.”

I would suggest at the very beginning that they are the same debate, and that the debate really centers on whether a particular set of cultural norms originating among Western Europeans and their major heirs (including North Americans, Australians, etc.) is superior to other non-Western norms.

Neither debate is about skin color or race. Prominent and successful members of Western European Cultures have a vast variety of skin colors and physical features, while many of the dysfunctional members of these same cultures are “white” (i.e., have Western European ancestors).

What Hegel, Conrad, and Naipaul provide is an ongoing account of why Western cultural norms have emerged as superior, and in what sense they are superior.

As a preliminary example, I note that in response to the recent covid pandemic the viable vaccinations were developed in the U.S. and the U.K, not in China, not in India, not in Russia. In addition, there was an immediate Western concern for redistribution to the rest of the world.

Individual Freedom

The preeminent norm of Western culture is individual freedom or autonomy. By “individual freedom” I mean that each and every individual chooses how he/she wants to live. Each of us is not assigned a role in advance, rather each of us decides, for example, what career we want to pursue, where we want to live, and to whom we wish if we so desire to be married. This is in the first instance a pursuit not a guaranteed outcome. Second since this is a privilege or set of privileges extended to all, no one individual can demand that others fulfill that one individual’s pursuit.

This has been best expressed by Oakeshott:

Almost all modern writing about moral conduct begins with the hypothesis of an individual human being choosing and pursuing his own directions of activity. What appeared to require explanation was not the existence of such individuals, but how they could come to have duties to others of their kind and what was the nature of those duties… This is unmistakable in Hobbes, the first moralist of the modern world to take candid account of the current experience of individuality. He understood a man as an organism governed by an impulse to avoid destruction and to maintain itself in its own characteristic and chosen pursuits. Each individual has a natural right to independent existence… And a similar view of things appeared, of course, in the writings of Spinoza… this autonomous individual remained as the starting point of ethical reflection. Every moralist in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is concerned with the psychological structure of this assumed “individual”… And nowhere is this seen more clearly to be the case than in the writings of Kant. Every human being…is recognized by Kant to be a Person, an end in himself, absolute and autonomous… as a rational human being he will recognize in his conduct the universal conditions of autonomous personality; and the chief of these conditions is to use his humanity, as well in himself and others, as end and never as a means [only—italics added]… no man has a right or a duty to promote the moral perfection of another… we cannot promote their “good” without destroying their “freedom” which is the condition of moral goodness (“The Masses in Representative Democracy”).

In another context, I have argued that the political and economic success of Western Culture depends on economic, political, and legal institutions that are premised on the centrality of individual freedom (namely the technological project or the control of nature for human benefit [Bacon], free market economy [Adam Smith], limited government [Locke, Madison], the rule of law [Coke, Dicey, Hayek], and a culture of personal autonomy). It has a historically-grounded but contingent connection with the English language, reflecting the fact that the earliest working out of the full panoply occurred first in England and then spread in varying degrees from there. It is no accident that both Conrad and Naipaul consciously adopted Anglo culture and achieved creative excellence by writing in English.

Throughout most of history and everywhere in the world, human beings have identified themselves as members of a community. There were neither autonomous individuals nor anti-individuals. The most important event in modern European history is the rise of the autonomous individual first appearing in Renaissance Italy (13th-15th centuries). There are no autonomous individuals anywhere before the Italian Renaissance. Autonomous individuality is a feature of Western European civilization and later spread elsewhere. All creative activity [creative/destruction] is the product of autonomous individuals: “It modified political manners and institutions, it settled upon art, upon religion, upon industry and trade and upon every kind of human relationship.”

The mind-set of the Autonomous Individual, auto-nomous (self-rule is the translation) reflects the imposition of order on themselves; self-disciplining, not self-indulgence or requiring outside control and direction; risk-takers, self-defining; self-respect (something you give to yourself; not the self-esteem that comes from others), pursuing self-chosen courses of action rather than playing traditional roles.

Not everyone makes the transition – some are left behind (by circumstance and by temperament) namely anti-individuals.

The emergence of this disposition to be an individual is the pre-eminent event in modern European history….there were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond…the counterpart of the…entrepreneur of the sixteenth century was the displaced laborer….the familiar anonymity of communal life was replaced by a personal identity which was burdensome….it bred envy, jealousy and resentment….a new morality….not of “liberty” and “self-determination,” but of “equality” and “solidarity”….not…the “love of others” or “charity” or… “benevolence”… but… the love of “the community” [common good]….[the anti-individual or mass man] remains an unmistakably derivative character…helpless, parasitic and able to survive only in opposition to individuality….[only] The desire of the “masses” to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge.

It was once fashionable to claim that Western economic success was a product of the colonial exploitation of natural resources. We now know that is not true, and the truth has been magnified by the inability of resource rich non-Western countries to be successful on their own. There are also some interesting half-way houses: e.g., China finally understood about technology and markets even though it still does not get the rest of the story.

The process of reacculturation—recognizing the need to leave the old communal framework behind—is a challenging and a painful one. There is the feeling (temporary) of being inferior or inadequate (like learning a new language from an accomplished speaker); of sometimes feeling patronized; of being prejudged (skin color, accent, posture, dress, etc.) as an outsider by those ignorant of your transformation. Success in making the transition is not a matter of intelligence. Frustrated, put off by the process, or the fear of failure creates a class of novices who ultimately fail, psychologically, to complete the journey. Some of these become celebrity critics of Western culture, famous for the books they write in a Western language detailing the “shortcomings” (challenges) of a culture of individualism. They soon ally themselves with homegrown critics, and it is ironic how many of the critics of Western Culture do not hesitate to accept being subsidized by universities in the culture they claim to despise—“to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge.”

True to form, they never produce a positive account of a viable alternative—after all doing such runs the risk of critical retaliation—fear of failure again. We do not always live up to our stated norms, but that alone does not deny the existence of those norms (except in the minds of social scientists who do not understand what a norm is).

An example of the failure to understand the norms is the claim that autonomous individuality is not a universal truth that exists independent of any specific historical context. Metaphysical universality is indeed a norm/truth within the Western mind. However, membership in the community of autonomous individuals is a universal invitation, and it is in the recognition of such that Naipaul will add his contribution.

Alas, even in Western cultures there are people who neither understand nor cherish these norms. Accepting responsibility for one’s own life pursuit is neither obvious nor easy. Many people simply want others to be responsible for them. This is clearly something that many parents and teachers worry about with regard to their children or other young people. In response, there are numerous political, social, educational, aesthetic, and intellectual movements designed to cater to those who do not want individual freedom and responsibility

Of special importance, however, are the number of people not born into a Western Culture who migrate to the West in search of individual freedom. I am pleased to meet them all the time. To be sure, many of those engaged in these now massive migrations merely come in search of greater economic and legal benefits without any understanding of why those benefits only exist in some places – perhaps they think it’s an accident or the result of magic, or more likely they do not, initially, think at all. In any case, the migrations are all in the same direction: north and west.

Hegel

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel initiated the idea of history as a development toward the consciousness of freedom. Hegel describes four stages in the formation of the self-consciousness of freedom: Oriental, Greek, Roman, and Germanic. In the “Oriental” stage, freedom is largely unrecognized and communities contains only the rudiments of freedom. The world-view of the Oriental realm arises in patriarchal communities where only one person, technically the king, is free. The classical Greek world is superior to the Oriental world because the Greeks have a greater sense of freedom (communities that are self-governing are free). However, they are not fully self-conscious of their freedom because the satisfaction of needs is carried out exclusively by a class of slaves. The Romans embody the third stage and display a greater sense of individuality, but ethical life is divided between the recognition of an aristocratic private domain in conflict with freedom in a democracy. In both classical Greece and Rome, only a portion of the community is free. With the advent of the ‘Germanic’ world, the idea that everyone can have this freedom emerges. This idea of universal freedom is facilitated through Christianity, which acts as a bridge linking the ancient world of limited freedom to the modern world where everyone can be free.

Two things are worth noticing about freedom in this earlier Hegelian work. First, the meaning of “freedom” is not some timeless abstraction but evolves over time. Cultural norms are not fixed and frozen entities. Second, “freedom” does not start out as a universal norm but involves a dialectical struggle.

For Hegel, freedom and self-consciousness are intricately linked.

The Christian doctrine that man is by nature evil is superior to the other according to which he is good. Interpreted philosophically, this doctrine should be understood as follows. As spirit, man is a free being [Wesen] who is in a position not to let himself be determined by natural drives. When he exists in an immediate and uncivilized [ungebildeten] condition, he is therefore in a situation in which he ought not to be, and from which he must liberate himself. This is the meaning of the doctrine of original sin, without which Christianity would not be the religion of freedom.

For Hegel, then, humans have original sin, and life serves as a realm in which humans struggle to release themselves from this condition of slavery to natural drives. Christianity is the religion of freedom insofar as it involves the redemption of mankind.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel explores the dialectical struggle of this relationship between the self-consciousness of freedom in the relation of masters to slaves. For Hegel, the self-consciousness of freedom exists only in being acknowledged. Recognition” is crucial to self-consciousness. Autonomous individuals have a need for recognition by other individuals. More specifically, individuals desire to be acknowledged by other self-conscious individuals. The master-slave (parent-child, teacher-pupil) relationship is problematic because it does not involve the mutual recognition of equals.

Hegel identifies the master as the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be “for itself.” He identifies the slave as the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be “for another.” The master achieves recognition but it is unsatisfactory because the slave is not another autonomous individual. Moreover, the master does not engage in the necessary labor that allows individuals to arrive at a sense of their own agency. The conventional perception of the master as free and the slave in bondage soon gets flipped on its head; the truth of the independent consciousness actually belongs to the servile consciousness of the slave. The slave, therefore, might have the better understanding of freedom. Through the process of withdrawing into itself, the consciousness of the slave will be transformed into a truly independent consciousness. The fear of the master is the beginning of the slave’s wisdom, but work completes this process of realization and enables the slave to become conscious of who he truly is. Thus, the master-slave relationship takes on a character that is directly opposite to the degrees of freedom traditionally associated with the master and slave.

For Hegel, then, the respect of inferiors is never sufficient. Individuals who want to achieve satisfactory recognition from others must obtain this acknowledgement from selves who are also self-conscious and free. Therefore, autonomous individuals should have an interest in other people achieving freedom and a sense of self-consciousness. Any autonomous individual will want to see his/her own freedom reflected in other people. In varying ways, Westerners will come to experience the discomfort of being masters.

“Promoting” personal autonomy in other individuals is not an easy process. It is a complicated undertaking in which difficulties can arise on the part of the “inferior” as well as on the part of the “superior” when either attempts to equalize the relationship. Colonialism in particular raises these issues of freedom and authority as well as providing a backdrop in which the Hegelian thesis may be tested on the grounds of its accuracy and its practicality.

Both Joseph Conrad and V.S. Naipaul present colonial narratives that serve as exemplifications of Hegel’s conception of freedom. Conrad identifies a problem with colonialism insofar as it reinforces the perception of Europeans as masters and others as slaves. Naipaul builds on Conrad’s argument but adds the recognition that while liberty as the removal of an “outside” constraint can be bestowed on others “inner” freedom cannot be given to others but is something they must work out for themselves.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness raises three important questions: In what ways does Conrad view Western civilization as more morally advanced? How does colonialism corrupt both western and non-western cultures? In what sense are Europeans enslaved by colonialism? In his works, Conrad displays an anti-colonial sentiment and suggests, like Hegel, that the admiration of an inferior is never satisfactory. He views colonialism as destructive insofar as it casts Europeans as masters and others as slaves. For Conrad, like Hegel, this master-slave relationship is ultimately and inherently undesirable.

Conrad, however, does not center this need for recognition on reflective freedom. His European characters are often engaged in imperialistic projects, and they do not seem particularly concerned with granting freedom to non-Europeans, or even with promoting autonomy in each other. Freedom is a definite concern for Conrad, but he does not insist that humans have a responsibility to help others achieve freedom. Conrad criticizes colonialism for its cruelty, demoralizing effects, and its inhumanity, but he does not go beyond this critical step, as does Naipaul, to propose a project of exporting freedom to others. For Conrad, the Western man is more morally advanced than savages because he has a conception of original sin and thus recognizes his own limitations; the savage exists in a prior state of consciousness/darkness.

Conrad, too, emphasizes the connection between individuals and history. Frederick R. Karl, his biographer, has described Conrad as “a Hegelian without the character of an Idea or an Ideal.” Conrad views mankind as caught in a web of moral and political turmoil in which humans are constantly struggling to overcome the powers of darkness. He does not see any final resolution of the human predicament.

Like Hegel, Conrad views the present world as divided into various stages of historical development. The narrator relates how the Thames has serviced “all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin.” Marlow adds the story is actually an historical account of conquest. His “seaman’s yarn” begins with a reflection on England’s historical origins. “I was thinking of old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago.” Marlow speculates on the experiences of a commander of a “trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north” and how he might have encountered “the utter savagery” of uncivilized England. These reflections are a preface to the story of European imperialism. First England is conquered, and then it conquers other lands.

History for Marlow is a history of conquest, but issues of freedom arise because conquest involves a restructuring of previously established norms of social organization, political institutions, belief systems, and even natural environments. He takes particular interest in the mode of conquest of imperialism, and he expresses clear concerns about the moral implications of this practice. He carefully distinguishes between those who conquered England and the current English imperialists: “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this [the Roman commander and his crew],” Marlow tells his fellow passengers. “What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency… these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists… They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others… The conquest of the earth which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion… [it] is not a pretty thing when you look into it much. What redeems it is the idea” of its more efficient use. This is “not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….” The conquest of nature, what we have called the “Technological Project” becomes a replacement for religion.

The “conquest” is only redeemable as the idea that colonizers are “bearers of a spark from the sacred fire” of civilization. But this is an illusion. In Heart of Darkness, the European colonizers do not bring civility to the savages. In fact, just the reverse occurs. The wilderness makes barbarians of the Europeans. The great colonial project is turned upon its head; it operates on the false and fatal assumption that the wilderness and its savage inhabitants will be the only ones conquered. The conquest of both land and its human inhabitants is a cruel and ugly process. Marlow’s description of the African natives, is that “[t]hey were dying slowly… They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation.”

Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station, comprises “[a]ll Europe.” “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” This dual purpose, Conrad suggests, is in itself a contradiction. Kurtz professes to bring civilization and virtue to the natives, but the ivory trade will mean their exploitation. Kurtz engages in the impossible task of humanizing the natives by taking away their humanity.

For Hegel, the crucifixion represents not only a reconciliation of opposites but also the descent of heaven to earth; the ideal meets the material world in the figure of Christ. There is, then, a notion of redemption in Hegel, and this notion of redemption is intimately connected with the idea of freedom. Christianity itself acts as an intercessor between the ancient and the modern worlds through Christ and promotes this liberation from original sin. In Conrad, attempts to achieve redemption never meet full success. You might treat the natives better but you cannot bring them true freedom. Thus, Conrad shares with Hegel the realization of humankind’s essential wickedness, but he does not share Hegel’s notion of redemption or Hegel’s optimism about the future.

Hegel recognized labor as one of the means by which individuals arrive at self-consciousness. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow makes the same observation: “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.” Thus Conrad, like Hegel, suggests that labor gives individuals a sense of their own agency.

Europeans are more morally advanced than the colonial savages they rule insofar as they have a conception of original sin so understood. Even though the civilized world may not uphold the morals it espouses, and even though the Western world may not subscribe to all of the right ideals, it nevertheless has a recognition of those morals. The savage does not have this awareness. When Marlow journeys deeper and deeper into the jungle, he relates, “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…. [Y]ou lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day against the shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—in another existence perhaps.” In this sense, history, for Conrad as for Hegel, also traces a development of human self-consciousness. Conrad views the savages as living in another stage of history, one that is located “in the night of first ages.”

V.S. Naipal

Naipaul’s work is usefully compared and contrasted with that of his favorite English author, Conrad. Like Conrad, Naipaul comes to his place at the very center of English culture as an outsider. Born in Trinidad into a Hindu family, he was part of the Indian community that had migrated a century ago to work the West Indian cane fields as indentured laborers. From early on, he felt the as yet inarticulate sense of marginality that fills his books, the irrelevance of such places and their inhabitants to the mainstream where significant deeds are done. Like Conrad’s restless wanderings as a sea captain, Naipaul for thirty years has recrossed the globe as expressed in his travel essays. Naipaul is Conrad’s spiritual heir, writing of the outposts of empire, the half-made societies, as Naipaul calls them. They share a similarity of outlook: the darkness of human irrationality, aggression, fanaticism, and barbarism are always impending; and that civilization is an achievement that has to be worked at constantly. Naipaul also explores how the social order comes to bear on the lives of individuals, defining our possibilities, constraining and enabling our individuality, and affecting how each one of us lives and understands and values his single life.

Naipaul, like Conrad, believes in mankind’s corruptibility. Naipaul, however, departs from the Conradian view of the world as locked forever under darkness. In an essay entitled, Conrad’s Darkness, Naipaul writes, “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century” (“Conrad’s Darkness,” in The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad.1980. p. 219).

The world has changed, however, between the days in which Conrad wrote and the period in which Naipaul lives. Both authors had direct experience with the colonial world and explore this world in their novels, but Naipaul, 75 years Conrad’s junior, also witnessed the decline of colonialism as it gave rise to the post-colonial world. Thus, Naipaul stands in a more historically advanced position from which he evaluates the world. His advantage of living in a later historical period than Conrad allows him to see consequences and outcomes that Conrad could not foresee. This historical advantage of perspective may account in part for Naipaul’s less pessimistic assessment of the human condition.

A House for Mr. Biswas

Set in an Indian community in Trinidad, A House for Mr. Biswas, arguably Naipaul’s greatest work, documents Mohan Biswas’s quest for dignity in a society that is unwilling to recognize his value as an individual. From the beginning, Mr. Biswas must combat prejudices and preconceived notions about his identity. The novel follows his quest for respect, independence, and a house to call his own as he challenges these prejudices and the culture which refuses to recognize him. Only the narrator accords Mr. Biswas the respect he deserves by referring to him with the title “Mr.” throughout the novel.

Mr. Biswas is born into a world that does not receive him kindly. He has been “[b]orn in the wrong way,” has six fingers, and enters the world at midnight, “the inauspicious hour.” The pundit declares that he will have an unlucky sneeze and warns that evil will result if Mr. Biswas goes near trees or water. His father is not pleased with the birth of his son or the pundit’s pronouncements, but he simply accepts his lot in life according to his philosophy: “Fate. There is nothing we can do about it.” It is against this prevailing attitude that Mr. Biswas must battle throughout the novel, for Mr. Biswas desires to make things happen for himself, to reject the prejudicial beliefs of his society and to cast off the superstitions surrounding his name.

Like the Hegelian individual, Mr. Biswas opposes fatalism and desires to achieve a free self-consciousness through work and through the recognition of others. The preconceived notions of his society, however, act as obstacles to Mr. Biswas’s realization of his individual worth. When his father drowns in a pond, Mr. Biswas (still a child) is blamed because he has gone near the water in violation of the pundit’s warning. The death of Mr. Biswas’s father sets off a series of events that eventually force his mother to sell their house. The narrator relates, “And so Mr. Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right. For the next thirty-five years he was to be a wanderer with no place he could call his own.” Furthermore, his family splits up to live with various relatives, and as a result, Mr. Biswas feels very alone in the world.

When Mr. Biswas marries, he becomes enslaved by the Tulsis, his wife’s relatives, for many years. Mr. Biswas is not literally a slave in the strictest sense of the term, but he repeatedly tells his wife that her family has “trapped” him. The Tulsis own a store and a large house called Hanuman House. When the narrator describes the house, he creates the impression of a large communal society. Children seem to run wildly and rampantly throughout the residence, adults seem to be engaged in constant quarrels, and a peculiar code of human behavior that emphasizes a perverted equality dominates the household.

Unable to bear the imposition upon his dignity and his independence, Mr. Biswas moves to a place known as “The Chase,” where he escapes from Hanuman House but not from the dominating presence of the Tulsis. The Chase proves ultimately unsatisfactory to Mr. Biswas; he begins to regard the venture as something “temporary and not quite real.” He reasons that “[r]eal life was to begin for them soon, and elsewhere. The Chase was a pause, a preparation.” As it turns out, the pause is a long one.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Biswas begins to lose sight of his dream as his individuality is smothered by the presence of the Tulsis and by other limiting influences on his freedom. He stops reading Samuel Smiles. The mention of ‘Smiles’ is important: Samuel Smiles was a Scottish author famous for books on self-help, and he promoted the idea that more progress would come from new attitudes than from new laws.

He does not give up hope, however, and he retains the sense that “some nobler purpose awaited him, even in this limiting society.” When Mr. Biswas leaves The Chase, he moves to a place called Green Vale, where he works as a sub-overseer in the sugarcane fields. Still, he has not escaped the shadow of the Tulsis; Green Vale is, after all, “part of the Tulsis land just outside of Arwacus.” It is “considered almost an extension of Hanuman House.” The Tulsis repeatedly work against Mr. Biswas’s attempts to assert himself as an individual. They seem particularly adverse to the idea of Mr. Biswas having a house of his own. Even when Mr. Biswas purchases a dollhouse for his daughter, the relatives at Hanuman House become resentful of this possession and treat Mr. Biswas’s wife so terribly that she eventually smashes the house to alleviate the situation. When the dollhouse is smashed along with Mr. Biswas’s dignity, the relatives are happy again. Here we see the nature and limits of traditional societies as it was ruthlessly and unsentimentally documented by Naipaul, including the emasculation of men in traditional patriarchal societies as opposed to free societies.

In what ways does Mr. Biswas battle throughout the novel to make things happen for himself, to reject the prejudicial beliefs of his society and to cast off the superstitions surrounding his name? When Mr. Biswas’s mother dies and the doctor acts rudely in writing her certificate of death, Mr. Biswas writes a letter of protest to the doctor. The letter is structured around the theme “no one could escape from what he was” and concludes that “no one could deny his humanity and keep his self-respect.” This letter is a personal declaration of independence.

Mr. Biswas finds a vehicle toward independence in education. He is an avid reader, and he stresses the importance of learning to his children, particularly to his son Anand. When the Tulsis come into financial difficulties and must sell their house, education acquires a new significance in the absence of the security of a closed community: “There was no longer a Hanuman House to protect them; everyone had to fight for himself in a new world, the world Owar and Shekhar had entered, where education was the only protection.” As the dominating presence of the Tulsis fades, Mr. Biswas begins to obtain a greater sense of dignity. His dignity is constantly insulted, but Mr. Biswas preserves his self-respect.

Eventually, Mr. Biswas acquires the means to purchase a house that is truly his own. The purchase of his house symbolizes the purchase of his freedom. He no longer remains constrained under the Tulsis’ shadow. The house on Sikkim Street has its disadvantages; the staircase is plain and unstable, the windows downstairs do not close, the doors upstairs lack uniformity, and other imperfections are discovered as well. However, the house acquires significance more for what it accomplishes than for what it lacks. Most importantly, it gives Mr. Biswas and his family an identity that reflects their independence. Thus the house, as a new arena of independence, provides a replacement for the old days of dependency. Mr. Biswas dies with a house of his own, in a world where he has earned his freedom and established his individuality.

Our Universal Civilization

Do people from non-Western (European) cultures come, in time, to adopt autonomy (and its nexus of beliefs) as a value? One way of answering this question is to examine the work of Nobel Prize winning author V. S. Naipaul. Naipaul answers in the affirmative. He does so in an important essay entitled, “Our Universal Civilization.”

In 1990, Naipaul delivered a speech at the Manhattan Institute in which he outlined his concept of “Our Universal Civilization.” Myron Magnet, the Senior Fellow of the Institute, introduced him as “Conrad’s spiritual heir.” As outsiders who came to England only after their childhood years, both Conrad and Naipaul “share a certain history that makes them almost obsessive analysts and questioners of social reality.” Naipaul in particular “explores the intersection of the social order and the individual life” and examines how the social order defines “our possibilities,” constrains and enables “our individuality,” and affects “how each one of us lives and understands and values his single life.” Thus, the nature of the relationship between society and the individual becomes a crucial one in the development of self-consciousness and the understanding of personal autonomy.

Hegel’s conception of freedom posits a continually advancing civilization in which humans progress toward a greater understanding of freedom; Naipaul insist that civilization is an advancement contingent upon human effort. Conrad and Naipaul, Magnet states, “share a similarity of outlook” in that they both view “the bush or the darkness of human irrationality, aggression, fanaticism, and barbarism” as “always impending.” For both authors, “civilization is an achievement that has to be worked at constantly.” For Conrad, the darkness forms a continual presence that perpetually overshadows society; the world for Conrad is a world of illusion in which humans ultimately cannot escape from the darkness. For Naipaul, however, human improvement is a reality; he sees society as advancing, and it is this optimistic view of civilization’s future that separates him from Conrad. If there is a sense in which Naipaul is writing in Conrad’s shadow, there is also a sense in which he escapes from it.

Naipaul’s speech serves to highlight the extent to which Naipaul, as Conrad’s inheritor, also diverges from him. At the conclusion of his lecture, Naipaul prophesies that the Western idea, which embodies the pursuit of happiness, individuality, and other liberal virtues, will cause “other more rigid systems in the end [to] blow away.” Naipaul, like Conrad, believes in mankind’s corruptibility. Unlike Conrad, however, Naipaul also believes in mankind’s perfectibility. Thus Naipaul departs from the Conradian worldview of the world as locked forever under darkness.

Naipaul also acknowledges his debt to Conrad; he does not reject him, but rather diverges from him. In an essay entitled, Conrad’s Darkness, Naipaul writes, “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.” The world has changed, however, between the days in which Conrad wrote and the period in which Naipaul lives. Both authors had direct experiences within the colonial world and explore this world in their novels, but Naipaul, 75 years Conrad’s junior, also witnessed the decline of colonialism as it gave rise to the post-colonial world. Thus, Naipaul stands in a more historically advanced position from which he evaluates the world. His advantage of living in a later historical period than Conrad allows him to see consequences and outcomes that Conrad could not foresee. This historical advantage of perspective may account in part for Naipaul’s less pessimistic assessment of the human condition and his more optimistic outlook regarding the future of society.

The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain. In Trinidad, I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought… A later realization—I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk—has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

For Naipaul, then, personal autonomy becomes an important issue. However, individuals also have the responsibility of working on their own freedom; they cannot gain a sense of self-consciousness solely through the means of another individual. Naipaul, like Hegel (and Oakeshott), criticizes the anti-individual who refuses to form an identity apart from the group. In a Free State in particular he addresses the issue of the post-colonial subject who does not know how to form an identity apart from his master or a larger society. In a Free State consists of two short stories (One out of Many and Tell Me Who to Kill) and a short novel (In a Free State) surrounded by a prologue and an epilogue from Naipaul’s travel journals.

In One out of Many, however, Naipaul suggests that some people may not be ready to accept their own freedom; the realization of self-consciousness is a rewarding but painful and difficult process. The first-person narrator in One out of Many encounters this very difficulty. Born and raised in Bombay, the narrator, Santosh, works for the government and can only conceive of his identity insofar as it relates to his employer; the narrator has no identity outside of the identity he associates with his master. Santosh relates, “I experienced the world through him… I was content to be a small part of his presence.” When his employer is transferred to Washington, the “capital of the world,” Santosh begs for permission to accompany him. His employer agrees. Initially, Santosh retains the characteristics of the Oakeshottian anti-individual who, finding himself “saddled with the unsought and inescapable ‘freedom’ of human agency,” is hesitant about being able to respond.

At first, Washington and the new American culture overwhelms Santosh. Gradually, however, he comes to gain a sense of his own individuality: “Now I found, that, without wishing it, I was ceasing to see myself as part of my employer’s presence, and beginning at the same time to see him as an outsider might see him, as perhaps the people who came to dinner in the apartment saw him.” As his sense of agency emerges, Santosh resolves to run away from his employer. After wandering the streets of Washington, Santosh takes on a new job at a restaurant owned by a man named Priya. In this new position, Santosh reflects upon his discovery of freedom: “I felt I was earning my freedom. Though I was in hiding, and though I worked every day until midnight, I felt I was much more in charge of myself than I had ever been.” Thus labor, in Naipaul as well as in Hegel, serves as a means by which individuals develop a sense of their own agency.

This freedom, however, also implies an increase in responsibilities. For Santosh, the freedom he discovers at Priya’s restaurant presents complications: “It was worse than being in the apartment, because now the responsibility was mine and mine alone. I had decided to be free, to act for myself.” Santosh begins to regret the consequences of his freedom, and one day he calls Priya, with whom he has developed a close and friendly relationship, “sahib.” Overwhelmed by the sense of his own freedom, Santosh retreats back into the position of servant by referring to his friend Priya in this way:

I had used the wrong word. Once I had used the word a hundred times a day. But then I had considered myself a small part of my employer’s presence, and the word was not servile; it was more like a name, like a reassuring sound, part of my employer’s dignity and therefore part of mine. But Priya’s dignity could never be mine; that was not our relationship. Priya I had always called Priya; it was his wish, the American way, man to man. With Priya the word was servile. And he responded to the word.… I never called him by his name again.… I was a free man; I had lost my freedom.

While Naipaul approves of the American way of treating and addressing others as equals, he also realizes that the transition into such a culture is not an easy process, especially for one who comes from a background of strict class systems where servility to superiors is taught as a virtue, or as a necessary means of communication.

At the end of the story, Santosh becomes an American citizen, but he does not want to live in the American way. For him, the transition from sleeping outside on the street with his friends in Bombay to living in America is too great to rightly be called pleasant. At the same time, however, America has given Santosh freedom; in America, he realizes that he is free; he becomes self-conscious of his freedom. He realizes that he made the decision to come to Washington and that he cannot return to the ways of Bombay. Santosh concludes his tale with an evaluation of his freedom:

I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will all be over.

Thus, Santosh delivers a troubling diagnosis of freedom. He acknowledges the negative side of freedom, in which duties associated with freedom become a burden. Nevertheless, Santosh’s final and disappointing portrait of freedom does not imply Naipaul’s approval of slavery or servitude. Rather, Naipaul wishes to expose the side of freedom that often gets undervalued; he wishes to show that freedom carries with it responsibilities, and that certain people have trouble accepting those responsibilities. For Naipaul, an individual’s enjoyment of freedom depends upon what that individual makes of his freedom. In this respect, Naipaul’s argument parallels Hegel’s assertion in the Philosophy of Right: “On the one hand, it is true that every individual has an independent existence [ist jades Individuum für sich]; but on the other, the individual is also a member of the system of civil society, and just as every human being has a right to demand a livelihood from society, so also must society protect him from himself…. Since civil society is obliged to feed its members, it also has the right to urge them to provide for their own livelihood.”

He would also agree with Hegel’s assertion in the Philosophy of Right: “If the direct burden [of support] were to fall on the wealthier class, or if direct means were available in other public institutions (such as wealthy hospitals, foundations, or monasteries) to maintain the increasingly impoverished mass at its normal standard of living, the livelihood of the needy would be ensured without the mediation of work; this would be contrary to the principle of civil society and the feeling of self-sufficiency and honor among its individual members.”

The narrator of Tell Me Who to Kill resolves to ensure his younger brother’s education. However, the narrator makes a mistake in assuming responsibility for his brother; while his encouragement is commendatory, the narrator ultimately cannot control his brother’s actions or make his brother succeed in the Western world. When Dayo, the narrator’s younger brother, goes to college in London, he struggles to adjust to his new lifestyle but fails. The narrator, moves to London and obtains a job in order to assist Dayo financially, but neither the narrator’s financial assistance nor even his emotional presence can substitute for Dayo’s own agency.

The narrator cannot help an individual who is not willing to help himself. The narrator’s misconception results in his disillusionment with the world around him as he fails to understand Dayo’s loss of confidence and motivation. The short story ends with Dayo’s marriage, which the narrator describes as “more like a funeral than a wedding.” The narrator cannot make sense of his surroundings, of unexpected outcomes, or of his failed plan to give Dayo a European education. Angry at the world, he wonders “who to kill.”

In In a Free State, Naipaul explores the alternative to Western rule. Set in Africa shortly after the end of British imperialism, In a Free State explores the political consequences of independence. “In ‘The Loss of El Dorado,’ Naipaul is unsparing about the abuses of colonial rule. But he’s not oblivious to what followed: “corrupt and brutal despotisms in Africa and South America, stupid homegrown ideologies, as well as the self-indulgent Western fantasies that sustain them.” Writing about Egypt in his epilogue, Naipaul exclaims, “Peonies, China! So many empires had come here.” He is looking at postcards of Chinese flowers that have been handed out as gifts to waiters in a small Egyptian hut. The implication is that Africa is still a land of conquest, where the Chinese are now establishing an empire, albeit “more remote,” in Egypt through their commercial activity.

If history is a history of conquest, it is also a history of change, and the nature of this change has resulted in more opportunities for humans to discover their freedom. A Bend in the River suggests, more strongly than A House for Mr. Biswas or In a Free State, that the Western enterprise has altered the world forever, and that this change has created a new sphere in which humans can best realize the meaning of freedom. A Bend in the River presents a decidedly more optimistic view of the human condition than the two former novels. The novel centers around Salim, an Indian man who opens a shop at the bend of a river in a newly independent African state. The geographic location (that is to say, Africa) is the same as in In a Free State, and political turmoil also plays a role here, but in A Bend in the River Naipaul expresses greater hope for the inhabitants of Developing countries and the opportunities available to them.

Salim, the narrator and main character, begins with the statement “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” This statement in many ways sums up Naipaul’s philosophy on life. It emphasizes the role that individuals play in their own fate and advocates personal responsibility in the face of a world that will not automatically adjust to fit individuals’ needs or desires. The opening statement of A Bend in the River also precludes anyone from blaming the world for personal failures; it denounces men who are not proactive. It is a negatively expressed statement, but it has a positive converse. For Naipaul, individuals have to make their dreams happen. If men who make themselves nothing have no place in the world, then men who make something of themselves do have a place in the world.

In the opening chapters of the novel, Salim offers a history of his family. His family past consists of men who would likely fall into the category of “men who are nothing.” They are not ambitious men, but rather men who had accepted without question the customs and traditions of their land:

We simply lived; we did what was expected of us, what we had seen the previous generation do. We never asked why; we never recorded. We felt in our bones that we were a very old people; but we seemed to have no means of gauging the passing of time. Neither my father nor my grandfather could put dates to their stories. Not because they had forgotten or were confused; the past was simply the past.

Salim’s ancestors, then, lack a clear conception of their larger historical significance. They also do not possess a conception of time; Salim’s journey into his family history, like Marlow’s journey up the Congo River, is a journey into a realm where time ceases to have a functional meaning. This limited conception of time reflects the primitive state of mankind before the advent of modern civilization. It also suggests that history involves a development of the mind. In this way, Naipaul’s recording of the narrator’s family history reflects a Hegelian approach to world history.

Salim’s ancestors locate themselves in the present and think even less of the future than they do of the past. “In our family house when I was a child I never heard a discussion about our future or the future of the coast. The assumption seemed to be that things would continue, that marriages would continue to be arranged between approved parties, that trade and business would go on, that Africa would be for us as it had been.”

Unlike his relatives, however, Salim has a sense of his society’s relationship to the rest of the world. “But it came to me when I was quite young, still at school, that our way of life was antiquated and almost at an end…” British postage stamps with a picture of an Arab dhow – what a foreigner describes as “most striking about this place [in Africa]”—generate Salim’s sense of societal self-consciousness, and he develops “the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance.”

Salim’s process of both recognizing himself as a part of his environment and also of perceiving himself as separate from his environment matches Hegel’s conception of the self-conscious individual who perceives that he is “a member of the system of civil society” but also realizes that he has an “independent existence.”

From this perspective of an outsider who is simultaneously an insider, Salim develops the idea that “as a community we had fallen behind.” The quality of self-consciousness and the ability to “stand back and consider the nature” of one’s community becomes crucial in an individual’s as well as a culture’s adjustment to the changing world. Salim observes, that the Europeans “were better equipped to cope with changes than we were” because “they could assess themselves.” Thus, the Europeans have an advantage over inhabitants of countries/cultures who have not advanced as far in the development of self-consciousness.

Salim perceives that the world around him is changing, and that if he is to succeed in it, he must take action. This action involves breaking away from the limiting lifestyles of his heritage:

I had to break away from our family compound and our community. To stay with my community, to pretend that I had simply to travel along with them, was to be taken with them to destruction. I could be master of my fate only if I stood alone. One tide of history… had brought us here…. Now… another tide of history was going to wash us away.

Salim resolves to leave his Indian community on the coast of Africa and journey inland to set up a new life, where he will run a shop on the bend in the river. The bend in the river symbolically represents the change in times, the switch from one historical epoch to another.

The “tides of history” concept which Naipaul invokes also recalls Hegel, who ascribes certain moments of the world mind’s Idea to certain epochs in history. In the Philosophy of Right he states that each stage of world history is “the presence of a necessary moment in the Idea of the world mind,” and he ascribes this Idea to particular nations.

The nation to which is ascribed a moment of the Idea in the form of a natural principle is entrusted with giving complete effect to it in the advance of the self-developing self-consciousness of the world mind. This nation is dominant in world history during this one epoch, and it is only once that it can make its hour strike. In contrast with this its absolute right of being the vehicle of the present stage in the world mind’s development, the minds of the other nations are without rights, and they, along with those whose hour has struck already, count no longer in world history.

Insofar as a particular nation possesses the Idea of the world mind, it has the right to promulgate this idea and promote historical development.

Naipaul presents a similar argument, although he makes a few modifications to the original Hegelian view. In A Bend in the River, Europe – and, more broadly, the West—acts as the vehicle of the present stage in history. If A Bend in the River had to locate this vehicle in a particular nation, it would likely be England, which is representative of the Western idea in the novel. Nevertheless, Naipaul certainly advances the Hegelian argument that certain ideas gain power and even right in the flow of history. In his speech before the Manhattan Institute, Naipaul characterizes this Western idea more specifically as “the idea of the pursuit of happiness.” Naipaul calls this pursuit “an immense human idea;” contained within it is “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.” Naipaul claims that this idea “has come to a kind of fruition.” In his 1979 novel, Naipaul traces the development of this idea toward its fruition. Furthermore, as the novel progresses, Salim comes to recognize the beauty and the enabling power of this Western idea. As in Hegel, Western thought parallels the individual mind in the history of its development.

When Salim in A Bend in the River finds that his country can no longer accommodate his newfound freedom, Salim is compelled to flee Africa in order to escape the new, oppressive regime that his taken over his shop and threatens to obliterate his identity as well. The novel ends with Salim’s flight, and on one level this seems like a negative and depressing conclusion. This interpretation, however, misses a crucial point: Salim is leaving a land of oppression to enter a land of opportunity. Salim’s visit to London before his permanent departure has already given him insight into the kind of opportunities available outside of his small African community. After his enlightenment, Salim realizes that there can be “no going back” to his former way of life. “[T]here was nothing to go back to. We had become to what the world outside had made us; we had to live in the world as it existed.” His friend Indar has introduced Salim to European ways of thinking and has revealed to Salim the flaws in traditional, non-Western thought. Indar tells Salim,

We have no means of understanding a fraction of the thought and science and philosophy and law that have gone to make that outside world. We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is what most of us do. We feel of the great world that it is simply there, something for the lucky ones among us to explore, and then only at the edges. It never occurs to us that we might make some contribution to it ourselves. And that is why we miss everything.

By the end of the novel, Salim has come to the conclusion that he does have power over his own fate and that he will no longer let himself be restricted by the limiting paradigms of a preceding generation. His decision to leave Africa parallels Naipaul’s own decision to leave his native Trinidad for the larger world in which he could better express his freedom. Like Salim, Naipaul saw “the rituals and the myths” of his heritage “at a distance” and eventually decided to leave Trinidad because his homeland did not offer “that kind of society” in which “the writing life was possible.” He had to make a journey “from the margin to the center” in order to find a society that would accommodate his needs, and this journey necessitated leaving his old life.

When Salim flees Africa at the end of the novel, he is not facing defeat, or a life of lonely exile. He is leaving a land that has limited his freedom to join other people in other lands who will share his freedom with him.

In A Bend in the River, the narrator (an Indian who lives in postcolonial Africa) observes, “[I]t came to me while I was still quite young, still at school, that our way of life was antiquated and almost at an end.” He later comes to regard himself “as part of an immense flow of history” in which the old and primitive cultures give way to the power of the European idea. The Europeans, he relates, “gave us on the coast some idea of our history.” The introduction of Western ideas to non-Western cultures precipitates a change in the living conditions of those cultures that affects not only physical surroundings but also the attitudes and philosophies of a land’s inhabitants.

Naipaul’s works embody the Hegelian conception of freedom and the human condition; like Hegel, Naipaul advocates individual freedom coupled with individual responsibility. He also acknowledges the value of ideas, and specifically the Western idea. Naipaul’s works is itself an immense contribution to the evolution of Western thought.


Nicholas Capaldi is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans.


In Search of Boris Poplavsky

An Introductory Digression

I first ran into Boris Poplavsky’s name in 1940 or 1941, and it was a case of mistaken identity. I was in Beverly Hills, California, at the home of a remarkable woman named Anna Semyonovna Meller, who in the days of my childhood was Madame Antoinette, the best known and most elegant couturiere in Harbin. My mother’s dressmaking establishment, Levitina-Karlinskaya, was not even a close second, but theirs was a friendly rivalry.

Anna Semyonovna’s adopted son Alex, six years my senior, was the idol and the despair of my Manchurian childhood: a champion ice skater, a concertizing pianist at the age of twelve, and a stoic who, during a hike in Chalantung, went on talking with a smile after a sharp rock had opened a bleeding gash on his knee. (I was half his age at the time and I remember screaming my head off at the mere sight.) Now, in California, he was a Surrealist painter, had been awarded a Guggenheim grant, and had spent a summer in New York, where he had met Pavel Tchelitchew (Chelishchev) and the son of Max Ernst and a number of other persons of equally supernatural stature.

Staying as a boarder at Anna Semyonovna’s was Alex’s friend Eddie, a young man of similar origins and background (his parents owned a dress shop on the Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai, and my mother had worked for them in her early youth), a former Berkeley architecture major who was now studying costume design at an art school somewhere near Westlake Park. Eddie’s sketches usually took first prize at school competitions, with the second prize going to his principal rival and fellow student, a melancholy-looking German refugee boy named Rudi Gernreich.

Waves of pure happiness would wash over me every time I waited for the Wilshire bus to take me for a day or a weekend to the Meller home in Beverly Hills, away from everything that made my life in Los Angeles glum and barely endurable: the incomprehensible courses in civics and physics (even their names seemed interchangeable) at Belmont High; the hopelessly boring afternoon job at the grocery store; and the pointless weekly exchange of mutual insults between Jack Benny and Rochester on the living room radio. (“It is all probably very funny and subtle, if we could only truly understand it,” my father would assure me after denying me permission to turn the dial to some concert music. But I did understand it all and it was not funny.)

At the Mellers’, things were altogether different. To begin with, it was perfectly all right to speak Russian and to have been born in China without having everyone exclaim, as they did at school, “How did you ever manage that?” or “Were your parents missionaries?” Instead of Jack Benny on the radio, there were real live stars to be encountered in Beverly Hills. Once I had to jump back when a long black car swung into a driveway with George Raft at the wheel and Rita Hayworth next to him.

Another time, Eddie and I were walking past the John Frederics millinery shop on Beverly Drive and were stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of the most unbelievably beautiful woman either of us had ever seen. She was selecting a hat inside. We stood there staring, exchanging whispered conjectures as to who this magical creature might be; then a saleslady came out, not to ask us to move, but to announce, “Miss del Rio would like to know which of the two models you gentlemen consider more becoming.” None of the Dolores del Rio films I saw later even began to do justice to the unforgettable radiance of her beauty.

Many years later, I felt a shudder of recognition as I watched that same scene reenacted (transposed into a comical key) in Billy Wilder’s film Witness for the Prosecution. Could Eddie have recounted it to someone during his brief career at the film studios? He was designing costumes for Gene Tierney and Maria Montez at Universal—or was it United Artists?—when he was run over and killed by a drunken driver. It happened as he was crossing Beverly Drive one evening in 1945, about half a block from where he and I had once stood admiring Dolores del Rio. Eddie also had connections in the world of burlesque. Rose La Rose wanted a new kind of stage costume and he came up with one that featured a quivering pink lobster over the G-string. One night he sneaked me backstage at the burlesque house on Main Street (I was too young to purchase a ticket), and I watched from the wings a performance of a tassel-twirler named Ermaine Parker. Afterward we went out for coffee with her and her tall, handsome husband, the straight man for the foul-mouthed, baggy-pants comedian in the show. The talk was mostly about the couple’s infant son, who had developed a liking for classical music before he learned to speak.

There were art exhibits of new painters, to which Alex or Eddie would take me: Salvador Dalí at the Ambassador Hotel, Eugene Berman and Christian Bérard at little galleries on Sunset Strip. But above all, books and poems were a part of daily life at the Mellers’. It was there that I was introduced to, or urged to read, Look Homeward, Angel; To the Lighthouse (which I couldn’t get through on the first try); Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (the book that provided the model for the title came later); a volume of short stories by Noel Coward (which I still think quite good); and collections of poems by Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and (whatever happened to him?) George Barker.

While everyone at home and at school kept urging me to forget about those useless Russian books I was forever dragging about, Alex and Eddie, older and wiser, never considered giving up their cultural heritage. Alex had his cult of the “three fellow-Alexanders”—Pushkin, Blok, and Scriabin; he had given up playing the piano when he decided that, compared to the later period of Scriabin, all music was primitive and dull. The three of us used to get high reciting Blok to each other, mostly from The Mask of Snow and The Nightingale Garden cycles. But here I could contribute as well as receive.

One day, after leafing through A Synthetic History of the Arts, by a Soviet scholar named Ioffe, at the Los Angeles public library, I learned of the existence of Boris Pasternak and Velimir Khlebnikov. There was no Khlebnikov at the library, but I immediately copied out his poem about the grasshopper, which Ioffe had cited to illustrate some principle of modern painting or other. They did have My Sister Life and Themes and Variations. I took these over to the Mellers’ the next weekend, and while the older generation (Alex’s parents and his aunt Madame Olga) pronounced Pasternak incomprehensible, Alex and Eddie both agreed that here was a major discovery. I also introduced them to my favorite modern Russian novelist, a man I knew only as V. Sirin, with whose work I had become involved several years earlier. When I brought over my copy of Invitation to a Beheading, Eddie tried reading it out loud, but his long sojourns in Shanghai and Berkeley had done something to his Russian stress. (This was not noticeable when he spoke, only when he read aloud.) I took the book away from him and began to read slowly, getting all the stresses right, but after three pages I had to stop: Eddie was on the floor, his legs kicking in the air, a beatific smile on his face. “Stop it, I can’t stand it, it’s too beautiful,” he was moaning.

Alex’s reaction was a little more reserved. He kept the book for several days and when he returned it, he remarked, “If I were a writer, this is how I would want to write.” And a little later: “I had the damnedest feeling I wrote some of it myself.”

Sirin then joined Pushkin, Blok, Pasternak, Thomas Wolfe, and Dylan Thomas in our literary pantheon. It was on one such enchanted Sunday afternoon, leafing through the New York Russian newspaper Novoe russkoe slovo [published until 2010], to which Anna Semyonovna subscribed, that I came upon Poplavsky’s name—and this is where the mistaken identity part comes in. A memoirist (Yury Terapiano? Vladimir Varshavsky?) was reminiscing about the Russian Montparnasse of the 1920s. He could vividly remember the poet Boris Poplavsky drunkenly declaiming:

And the nightingale in the Sanskrit tongue
Shouts “More wine! More wine!” over the yellow rose.

The name was unfamiliar, but there was something about those two lines that made me resolve to look up their author. As a matter of plain fact, however, the lines were not by Poplavsky. I could never find them in any of his books, and after years of fruitless searching I finally, through sheer accident, discovered the awkward truth. The lines are a quotation from the Rubaiyat translated into Russian by Ivan Tkhorzhevsky. In connection with that translation Vladislav Khodasevich, when asked one morning why he looked so poorly, quipped: “I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that I was a Persian poet and that Tkhorzhevsky was translating me.” [The passage corresponds to stanza 6 of Edward Fitzgerald’s version, where the nightingale speaks in Pahlavi and the rose is sallow. The notes to my (New York, 1888) edition explain that the rose was yellow in the first edition of Fitzgerald’s translation and identify Pahlavi as the “old, heroic Sanskrit of Persia.” This seems to suggest that Tkhorzhevsky was translating Fitzgerald into Russian, rather than the original Omar.]

But never mind. These two lines of Tkhorzhevsky’s pseudo-Omar did direct me to Poplavsky.

The Discovery

The strange Aztec-Mayan pyramid that houses the main public library in downtown Los Angeles will always remain for me one of the endearing spots in Southern California. Its dark tile walls that kept the air comfortably cool on the muggiest days; the long, Alhambra-like vistas that opened from one room to another; the purling fountains in the inner yards (if I’m making it sound garish and eclectic, it no doubt was) I still find unforgettable. There was a Russian lady in the Foreign Books Room, whose name I never learned, who made it a point to purchase everything worthwhile in contemporary Soviet and Russian émigré literature. The library’s collection of volumes on Russian painters and painting and on the Soviet theater of the 1920s was nothing short of opulent.

Yes, of course they had Poplavsky at that library. There were two slim volumes: a selection from his journals and a volume of verse called Flags. I got Flags, opened it in the middle, and immediately felt as though I were falling through a hole in the ice. Nikolai Tatishchev described his first impression of reading Flags thus: “A pure and piercing sound. Hardly anything can be made out. Now and then something breaks through and stings you. ‘O Morella, come back, it will all be different one day.’ Alarm, apprehension. The barometer needle quiveringly indicates a storm. A degree of agitation that can be expressed only in deliberately approximate terms.” [N. Tatishchev, “O Poplavskom” [On Poplavsky], Krug [The circle], vol. 3 (Paris, 1938)].

This was how a mature person, a close friend of the poet and the publisher of his posthumous books, reacted to Flags. My own impression (and it remains one of the most vivid of my entire life) was somewhat different. I was struck first of all by the bright colors, the swirling images, the authenticity of the dreamlike states the poems conveyed:

In the emerald waters of the night
Sleep lovely faces of virgins
And in the shadow of blue pillars
A stone Apollo slumbers.

Orchards blossom forth in the fire,
White castles rise like smoke
And beyond the dark blue grove
Vividly dark sand is ablaze.

Flowers in the garden hum,
Statues of souls come to life
And like butterflies from the fire
Words reach me:

Believe me, angel, the moon is high,
Musical clouds
Surround her, fires
Are sonorous there and days are radiant.

My English cannot reproduce the pulsating music that emanates from these lines in Russian, nor does it convey the artful and often startling rhymes. There are pages and pages in this little book that project this blend of color and music, but there are also other things:

We shelter our caressing leisure
And unquestioningly hide from hope.
Naked trees sing in the forest
And the city is like a huge hunting horn.

How sweet it is to jest before the end
This is understood by the first and the last—
Why, a man vanishes, leaving fewer traces
Than a tragedian with a divine countenance.

There was an attitude in those poems, a vision, a sensibility quite new to me, but one that I instantly recognized and accepted:

But now the main entrance thundered and the bell started barking—
Springtime was ascending the stairs in silence.
And suddenly each one remembered that he was all alone
And screamed “I’m all alone!” choking with bile.
And in the singing of night, in the roar of morning,
In the indistinct seething of evening in the park
Dead years would arise from their deathbeds
And carry the beds like postage stamps.

I did not know enough about poetry at the time to recognize Poplavsky’s sources, to discern his French influences: Baudelaire (who had a greater impact on him than anyone except Blok), Nerval, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Apollinaire, Breton. I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian. But much of his sensibility was also a verbal equivalent of the visual imagery I knew and loved in the work of the exiled Russian neo-Romantic painters Pavel Tchelitchew and Eugene Berman. [“But Poplavsky’s surrealistic world is created illegitimately, using means borrowed from another art, namely painting (some of the critics have pointed out that Poplavsky is actually a visual rather than a musical poet; his poetry has been compared to Chagall’s painting…” Gleb Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii [Russian literature in exile] (New York, 1956), 339. The observation is absolutely correct, but why is cross-fertilization between the arts illegitimate? Russian poetry of the twentieth century in particular has a deep-going and highly legitimate symbiotic involvement with both painting (Voloshin, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov) and music (Bely, Blok, Kuzmin, Pasternak)].

An uncritical acceptance? I knew at once that much of what Poplavsky was doing was highly artificial. But I knew even then that artifice was a natural component of some of the finest art and had no objections. Despite its artificiality (and partly because of it), the book hit me with a wave of lyrical power I would not have believed possible, a wave that swept me off my feet and held me prisoner for many weeks. This was not like getting intoxicated on Blok’s verbal magic, nor was it like the intense intellectual pleasure afforded by Pasternak’s formal perfection and his freshness of perception.

Poplavsky came to me more like a fever or a demonic possession. I went around reciting Poplavsky’s lines by heart. I tried composing melodies to them. I discovered that stanzas 3 and 4 of his poem “To Arthur Rimbaud” could be conveniently sung to the tune of the clarinet solo from Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, and I did sing them, obsessively. The next thing I knew, my mother, normally infuriatingly indifferent to poetry, was muttering Poplavsky to Chaikovsky’s music in an undertone while fixing dinner.

It was a heavy burden to keep to oneself at sixteen. I was fortunate indeed to have two older friends with whom I could share it. Alex and Eddie were almost as enthusiastic about Poplavsky as I. The three of us leafed through the fragments of his journals. We did not find his religious quest congenial, but the seriousness and depth of his spiritual experience got through to us, and his ways of formulating it we also found impressive. Seeing that Russian poetry could be this closely allied with Surrealism in painting, Alex was moved to write a few Russian poems, which were meant as literary parallels to his paintings. He submitted them to Novoe russkoe slovo and one of them was printed, not in that newspaper’s Sunday poetry section as he had hoped, but as an illustration to an editorial which discussed the poor quality of Russian émigré poetry and asserted that Surrealism as a whole was an unimportant trend, by now entirely passé and forgotten. Then Alex was drafted into the army. He wrote me asking for the library copy of Flags. I sent it to him, he returned it, then he wanted it again, and it was lost in the mail. I ruefully paid the charges for the lost book ($2.50, I think). A few months later it turned up at Alex’s training camp. When I tried to return it, I was told that there was no need, because the library had replaced it. I now had my own copy of a book by Poplavsky… But just who, exactly, was Boris Poplavsky?

Some Biographical Materials

Exhibit A: His Father

[The vice president of the Moscow Association of Manufacturers] was Yulian Ignatievich Poplavsky, an extremely original and colorful personality even for the Moscow of those days. Poplavsky was a musician. He graduated (with very high grades) from the Moscow Conservatory where he majored in piano and was one of the favorite pupils of Pyotr Chaikovsky, with whom he was on intimate terms, as can be seen from his memoirs. I do not remember what it was that moved him to give up his musical career and take up industrial relations….

Poplavsky was a talented person; one seldom encounters such facility with word and pen. He could discuss any topic and could treat the most serious subject in a frivolous vein. His speech mannerisms, which corresponded to his manner of dress, irritated many and Poplavsky was widely disliked. It was said that he was “barred from the stock exchange.” This seems to be factually correct: invitations were not extended to him and this would cause clashes between the Manufacturers’ Association and the Stock Exchange Committee. He was also active in St. Petersburg where he was the representative of his organization, together with Jules Goujon [the president of the Manufacturers’ Association] at the Convention Council. When a petition had to be drafted or a summary of a discussion prepared, he was irreplaceable and was able to draft them with the utmost ease and elegance.

Gradually, people became accustomed to his manners, and he began receiving invitations to Stock Exchange Committee sessions, especially when labor problems were involved, inasmuch as the antiquated organization of the Stock Exchange Committee was falling behind the times in collecting current statistical data and the documentation pertaining to labor problems. Poplavsky’s office on Miasnitskaia Street was excellently organized and the Association (it was in existence for only twelve years) was able to accumulate much valuable material.

[A portrait of Boris Poplavsky’s father, from Paul A. Bouryschkine, Moskva kupecheskaia – The Merchants’ Moscow (New York, 1954), 256–57. This little-known volume is an astoundingly thorough and convincing record of the contribution made by the traditionally maligned and despised Russian merchant class to the development of Russian culture, literature, and the arts during the century preceding the Revolution.]

Exhibit B: His Sister

I can still see one [of these poetesses]—tall, feverish, everything about her dancing: the tip of her shoe, her fingers, her rings, the tails of her sables, her pearls, her teeth, the cocaine in the pupils of her eyes. She was hideous and enchanting with that tenth-rate enchantment which cannot but attract, to which people are ashamed to be attracted, to which I am openly and shamelessly attracted.…

I can say in general that I was met with kindness in this alien world of female practitioners of drug-addicted poetry. Women are in general kinder. Men do not forgive felt boots or having starving children. But this very same P——skaya, I am convinced, would have removed the sables from her shoulders had I told her that I had a starving child at home.…

I did not get to hear the feverish, fur-clad beauty recite her poetry, but I doubt that cocaine could have disposed her to write of love.…

[Three glimpses of Boris Poplavsky’s sister Natasha, gleaned from Marina Tsvetaeva’s memoir A Hero of Labor (1925). Tsvetaeva and Natasha Poplavskaya both appeared at a reading of women poets in the cold and starving Moscow of 1920].

Exhibit C: His Biography

Boris Poplavsky was born in Moscow on 24 May 1903. His father was a free artist—a musician, a journalist, and a well-known social figure; his mother, née Kokhmanskaya, came from an old, cultivated, aristocratic family, had a Western European education, and was a violinist with conservatory experience. As a child, Boris Poplavsky was first looked after by his nanny, Iraida, and then by a German nurse and a French governess. Later, as an adolescent, he had Swiss and English tutors, and when he reached school age, he was taught by Russian university students, hired to give him lessons. He also studied music, but showed no enthusiasm; lessons in drawing, however, were always his favorites.

In 1906, his mother had to take the children abroad because of the severe illness of her daughter. They lived alternately in Switzerland and Italy, while his father remained in Moscow. While abroad, Boris forgot his native tongue to such an extent that, when he returned to Moscow, his family had to enroll him and his brother at the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where he remained until the Revolution. Boris took to reading early … and it was hard to tear him away from a book. When his elder sister Natasha, a dazzlingly educated and talented girl, published a collection of verse in Moscow, where she was considered an avant-garde poetess, Boris, either through competitiveness or imitation, also began to practice writing verses in his school notebooks, accompanying them with fanciful illustrations.

When the Revolution broke out in February 1917, Boris was fourteen years old. In 1918 his father was forced to travel to the south of Russia, and he took his son along. Thus, while still quite young, Boris had to part from his family and experience all the horrors of the civil war. In the winter of 1919, when he lived in Yalta, he gave his first reading as a poet at the Chekhov Literary Circle. And in March of the same year he and his father emigrated to Constantinople. This period of his life can be summed up in two words: he meditated and prayed. All the money his father gave him, his own belongings, even his food, Boris gave to the poor; at times several homeless people would spend the night in his room: students, officers, monks, sailors, and others, all of whom were literally refugees.

In Constantinople, Boris attended a makeshift equivalent of high school, did a great deal of sketching, read a lot, occasionally took incidental jobs, and spent much time with the cub scouts at the Russian Hearth, which was organized by the YMCA. At the same time, Boris saw life through a veil of profound mysticism, as if sensing the breath of Byzantium which gave birth to the Orthodox faith, to which he yielded himself unconditionally. In June 1921, his father was invited to Paris to attend a conference on Russian trade and industry.

For ten years Boris lived in the Latin Quarter, during the last four on the rue Barrault near the place d’Italie. There he died in the little annex at number 76-bis, located on the roof of the immense Citroën garage. The exciting and intriguing city of Paris absorbed Boris so much that he left it only once, in 1922, to spend a few months in Berlin. There he moved in the avant-garde literary circles, often appeared at literary gatherings and artistic soirées, and made a number of literary acquaintances.

The Poplavsky family gradually all assembled in Paris and Boris’s life seemed to enter upon a normal course. He regularly attended the Art Academy at La Grande Chaumière and was later enrolled at the Sorbonne, majoring in history and philology. He immersed himself in philosophy and theology and spent long hours in the rare manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. He was a passionate book collector; he had two thousand volumes at his death. He regularly visited museums, where he would stay for days on end. He studied assiduously, practiced sports, and wrote. As in earlier days, he was interested in poetry, literature, economics, philosophy, sociology, history, aviation, music, and everything else. He was always in a hurry to live and work, and he sometimes dreamed of becoming a professor of philosophy in Russia … not merely when collective farmers got to wear top hats and drive around in Fords, as he put it, but when the persecution of faith would end and a free life of the spirit would begin.

His novel Homeward from Heaven, which is partly autobiographical, gives an idea of how Boris lived and worked in Paris. He frequently appeared at literary gatherings, debates, and conferences as the principal speaker or as a discussant; he was well known in literary and artistic circles. His close friends valued him as a religious mystic, a God seeker, and a perceptive philosopher and thinker. The last years of his life were profoundly enigmatic. Many found in him not only a friend, but a source of support for attaining an ideological turning point in their lives. He was destitute at the time, but he would still share his last penny with the poor.

A tragically absurd incident brought his life to an end. On 8 October 1935, Boris met a half-mad drug addict, who under the pressure of his own adversity decided to commit suicide and wrote a suicide note, addressed to the woman he loved. He persuaded Boris, “on a dare,” to try out a “powder of illusions,” but instead, excited by the maniacal idea of taking a fellow traveler along on his journey to the beyond, gave him a fatal dose of poison, taking one himself at the same time.

Boris left behind two parts of a trilogy in the form of two large novels, Apollon Bezobrazov and Homeward from Heaven, and sketches for the third part, The Apocalypse of Therese. Then there are three volumes of verse ready for publication, a philosophical treatise on logic and metaphysics, the essay “Solitude,” a multi-volume diary, notations, drawings, letters, his favorite books which contain many jottings on the margins, and a great deal of other material, which so far has not been sorted out.

Paris, October 1935
[Yulian Poplavsky’s biography of his son, slightly abridged. [Iu. I. Poplavskii, “Boris Poplavskii,” Nov’ (Tallinn), no. 8 (1936): 144–47.]

Exhibit D: A Friend

I began writing verse quite early, and in 1920 Boris Poplavsky and I organized a Poets’ Guild in Constantinople.

Vladimir Dukelsky, alias Vernon Duke. [Autobiographical note in the anthology Sodruzhestvo (Washington, 1966), 521. Although both wrote poetry at the time, it was the future composer of Cabin in the Sky and Le bal de blanchisseuses who considered himself a poet then, while Poplavsky saw himself as a future painter.]

Exhibit E: Self-Portraits

  1. “Poverty is a sin, retribution, impotence, while luxury is like a kingdom in which everything reflects, extends, incarnates the slightest flutter of God’s eyelashes. And nevertheless, stoically, heroically, Oleg managed to bring his life to a realization, extricated it out of its wraps, despite poverty, inertia, and the obscurity of his underground destiny. Having received no education, he wrenched one for himself from the stained, poorly illuminated library books, read while his behind grew numb on the uncomfortable benches. Anemic and emaciated, by abstinence and daily wrestling with heavy iron weights, he forced life to yield him cupola-like shoulder muscles and an iron handgrip. Not handsome, unsure of himself, he used his hellish solitude, know-it-allism, valor, asceticism to master that fierce eye mechanism which was able to subjugate, at times to his own amazement, female heads radiant with youth. For Oleg, like all ascetics, was extraordinarily attractive, and his ugliness, rudeness, and self-assurance only enhanced his charm. Life refused him everything and he created everything for himself, reigning and enjoying himself now amidst the invisible labors of his fifteen-year effort. Thus, in a conversation he would calmly and slyly radiate the universality of his knowledge, which astounded his listeners as much as did the ease with which he could, while sitting on a sofa, lift and toss about a thirty-kilogram weight or a chair, held horizontally by its back in his hand, as he laughed at the gloomy, lifeless, unascetic, sentimental, disbelieving Christianity of the Paris émigré poets.”
  2. “You thought, Oleg, that you could at last do without God, rest from His insatiable demands; and see, now He is doing without you.… Look, nature is about to enter upon her sad, brief summer triumph and you were asleep, your heavy head full of the hot waters of sleep, and you dreamed of earthly, full-blooded, bearded life. Once again you were insolent to God, Oleg, and tried living without Him, and your face hit the ground, heavily, stupidly, clownishly. You finally awoke from the pain, took a look around, and see, the trees are already in bloom and have hung out their vivid, abundant new leaves. It is summer in the city and again you are face to face with God, whether you want to be or not, like a child that conceived the wish to hide from the Eiffel Tower behind a flowering shrub in the Trocadero garden and after walking around it was instantly overtaken by the iron dancer-monster that takes up the entire sky. You try not to notice it, but it hurts you to look at the white sky and a heavy, sweaty stuffiness is pressing on your heart. You are again in the open sea, in the open desert, under an open sky covered up by white clouds, in the intolerable, ceaseless, manifest presence of God and sin. And there is no strength not to believe, to doubt, to despair happily in a cloud of tobacco smoke, to calm yourself at a daytime movie. The entire horizon is blindingly occupied by God; in every sweaty creature He is right there again. Eyesight grows dim and there is no shade anywhere, for there is no home of my own, but only history, eternity, apocalypse. There is no soul, no personality, no I, nothing is mine; from heaven to earth there is only the fiery waterfall of universal existence, inception, disappearance.”

[Two of Boris Poplavsky’s self-portraits as Oleg in his novel Homeward from Heaven. Fragments from Homeward from Heaven, in Krug, vol. 3].

Exhibit F: The Critical Response

[R]ecently Will of Russia (Volia Rossii) discovered the amazingly gifted B. Poplavsky. Of all his delightful poems it printed, not a single one could have possibly appeared in Contemporary Annals (Sovremennye zapiski)—they are far too good and uniquely original for it. [Georgy Ivanov in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 31 May 1928]

Among the Parisians, Boris Poplavsky is particularly outstanding. Some of his poems (especially the one with the epigraph from Rimbaud that appeared in volume 2 of Poetry and the “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” in Will of Russia, number 7) force one to stop and listen in astonishment to the voice of a genuine and entirely new poet. What is interesting about Poplavsky is that he has severed all ties with Russian subject matter. He is the first émigré writer who lives not on memories of Russia, but in a foreign reality. This evolution is inevitable for the whole of the emigration. [D. S. Mirsky (Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky), in Eurasia (Evraziia), Paris, 5 January 1929.]

…Poplavsky’s pseudonaiveté and sleek imitation of the correctly grasped literary fashions. There is no point in mentioning Poplavsky’s name next to the names of Blok and Rimbaud (and yet this has been done by Weidlé and Adamovich and Mochulsky). The scribblings (pisaniia) of Mr. Poplavsky, whose critical articles are as deliberately insolent as his verse, would not even deserve mention were it not for the fact that these puerile and shrill scribblings found an echo in Georgy Adamovich. [Gleb Struve in Russia and Slavdom (Rossiia i slavianstvo), 11 May 1929; 11 October 1930.11].

Gleb Struve attacked Poplavsky’s work vehemently when it first appeared in print, and he remained Poplavsky’s most consistent critical opponent. The only other adverse response to Poplavsky’s literary beginnings in émigré criticism, Vladimir Nabokov’s review of Flags in Rul’ [The rudder]—which Nabokov subsequently repudiated—is far milder in both its tone and its conclusions. Although Nabokov took Poplavsky to task for his violations of meter, ungrammatical usages, and abuses of inappropriate colloquialisms, he ended the review with the admission that some of the poems in the collection “soared with genuine music.”

In his later history of Russian émigré literature, Professor Struve cites the highly favorable opinions of various important émigré writers and critics about Poplavsky’s poetry with exemplary scholarly objectivity; he even seems to see some promise in Poplavsky’s novels. But his ultimate judgment on Poplavsky can be summed up in this quote: “He was a gifted man and an interesting phenomenon, but he never became any kind of writer, no matter what his numerous admirers may say” (Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii, 313).

Exhibit G:

THE TRAGIC DEATH OF THE POET B. POPLAVSKY

The lower depths of Montparnasse have claimed the lives of two more young Russians. Under circumstances that are still being investigated, the poet Boris Poplavsky and nineteen-year-old Sergei Yarko, well known in certain shady cafés of boulevard du Montparnasse, died of narcotics poisoning.

ACCIDENT OR SUICIDE?

The police commissioner of the Maison Blanche quarter immediately initiated an investigation. At first, the possibility of a double suicide was not ruled out. But upon examination of the evidence, it became clear that the young men were the victims of a drug overdose. It is also possible that the drug, purchased on Montparnasse from nameless dealers, contained an admixture of some kind of poison.

Boris Poplavsky never thought of suicide. Sunday evening he visited Dmitry Merezhkovsky and discussed literature and politics with him. On Monday he was seen on Montparnasse. His parents, with whom he had a conversation several hours before his death, categorically reject the possibility of suicide. Their son was a victim of “white powder” vendors.

Apparently Poplavsky and Yarko had been addicts for a long time. In the poet’s wallet, his own photograph was found, bearing a revealing inscription: “If you are interested, I found a source of cocaine, etc. Reasonably priced: heroin 25 fr. a gram, cocaine—40 fr.” This was written in Poplavsky’s hand—apparently in some café, where he was not able to announce the news out loud to his friend.

NO FUNDS FOR BURIAL

At 4 p.m. yesterday, Poplavsky’s and Yarko’s bodies were taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine for autopsy. The funeral is planned within the next few days. But there are absolutely no funds available for Boris Poplavsky’s burial. His family is destitute. There is not a sou in the house. Boris Poplavsky’s parents are appealing to all his friends and to all generous people to help them pay for a coffin and a burial plot for the poet whose life ended so tragically. Donations may be sent to Latest News.

[Selected passages from the lengthy news story in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 11 October 1935].

Excerpts from “The Book of Blessings,” Poplavsky’s Unpublished Journal for 1929.

109. I need only those writers whom I can apply practically in my life, from whom I can learn a particular form of pride or pity and, of course, whom I can develop and alter in my own way. Chekhov teaches me to endure in a special way, not to surrender, to hope, for in Chekhov there is much that is Roman, there is much of “no matter what happens,” of quand même. With Dostoevsky one can be ill and die, separate and perish, but it is impossible to live with him. As for Tolstoi, with his ancient Hebraic family idylls, I find him repulsive. But Chekhov I hope to put to use, after first rendering him harmless. How? By expanding and developing his admiration for the perishing, beautiful failures, by cleansing him of his disgusting squeamishness and his dignified contempt, contempt for what has failed, what has perished, i.e., extending him in a Christian or, more correctly, specifically Orthodox direction.

110. Chekhov is the most [Russian] Orthodox of Russian writers or, more correctly, the only Orthodox Russian writer. For what is Russian Orthodoxy if not absolute forgiveness, the absolute refusal to condemn which we hear in the voice of Sonya and of the Little Priest of the Swamps? [I.e., Sonya from Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, and the elfin creature from Blok’s poem of that name, who prays with equal fervor “for the injured leg of a frog and for the Pope in Rome.”]

111. Blok is also an Orthodox poet, the poet of absolute pity, angry at nothing, condemning nothing….

115. It seems to me that the closest work we have to the spirit of the Prometheus of Aeschylus is Chekhov’s Ivanov. Let us note, en passant, that the Prometheus of Aeschylus is one of the most pretentious heroes in world literature. But then, is there anything more beautiful than heroic pretentiousness, for is not the perishing hero higher than the smugly successful hero? And is not the point of a perishing hero in his pretense at being a hero?

116. All my poetry is only the voice of Sonya, or at least I would like for all my poetry to be the voice of Sonya, consoling Uncle Vanya abandoned by everyone in the midst of the demolished estate….

123. Oh, how the lower strata of the émigrés are irritated and outraged by the sight of an impoverished and merry friend of books and stars, with his tattered pants and a monocle in his eye! It is their enormous, base yearning for power that is outraged within them. What! He dares to be joyous, that owner of worn-out shoes? Isn’t he in the same position as we? He has no money, no power, and he dares to be joyous. Where does he get his joy? Surely not from that bookish, intellectual stuff—the very thing that ruined Russia? From Culture and Social Conscience? Thus the poor people. And a huge disgust hangs suspended in perplexity from their curled lip, while the friend of the stars goes his own way in his worn-out shoes, waving his handsome athletic arms in the air as he recites poetry to his neighbor.

124. The attitude of the wealthy émigrés toward the friend of the stars is even more base. What! We’ve done our best, we’ve achieved, we’ve recovered our own, and this one dares to be joyous while the seat of his pants is in patches? What was the point of our struggle?

125. But the attitude of foreigners is delightful. It can be seen from their glances in the street, for in them there still survive the ancient, beautiful ideals, merry and profound, of ancient stoical poverty. There was once this delightful philosopher—Anaximenes of Dorcrete seems to have been his name—a fine athletic old man. Diodorus tells us that he was once invited to some ritzy party, by some tyrant or other. Coming to the table, he bared himself and beshat the company and the table, and with this excellent deed he indubitably deserved his immortality. His other works were forgotten, but compared to this they could not have been important.

Poplavsky Yesterday and Today

When I first read Flags, I had no idea of Poplavsky’s position in the Russian literary hierarchy. I had simply assumed that he was a poet as famous as Blok and Pasternak. I knew little about Russian poetry as a whole at the time, and there were many important modern poets I was yet to discover and read. It took me a few years to realize that apart from a small cult centered in Paris, almost no one had ever heard of his name. In the late 1940s my colleagues at the Control Council for Germany, Alain Bosquet and Edouard Roditi, were publishing a literary journal in Berlin. They asked me to write something about Russian poetry for it, “about somebody modern and famous, like Selvinsky or Bagritsky,” as Roditi put it. I had no idea who Selvinsky and Bagritsky were, but I offered to write about the three poets who had been my favorites during my school years in Los Angeles. They let me, and I wrote three brief pieces on Khlebnikov, Pasternak, and Poplavsky; these were translated into German and published in Das Lot in 1950, with a selection of translated poems by each of these poets. [S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 46–51].

The overindulgent accompanying note identified me as the author of “numerous articles published in American newspapers and magazines,” but apart from a few pieces in the college newspaper, this was actually my debut in print. I’m glad it had to do with Poplavsky and that I already then called him the most interesting poet produced by the Russian emigration between the two world wars.

By then I had already read his two posthumous collections of verse (they contain some astounding poems, but I found them on the whole a bit of a letdown after Flags); the published portions of his novels (Homeward from Heaven contains some of his finest lyrics, inserted between passages of prose and printed to look like prose); his paradoxical critical essays; the highly original short story “The Ball;” his pieces on painting and boxing.

When in 1965 Nikolai Tatishchev privately published a new volume of Poplavsky’s previously uncollected poems, Dirigible of Unknown Destination, my torch for the poet flared up again. The volume contained some of his most typical and most perfectly realized poems (“On the Frontier,” for instance, with its striking central metaphor of a poet as a customs official trying to stop the two-way smugglers’ traffic between the Land of Good and the Land of Evil; or “The Biography of a Clerk,” with its transposition of the humiliated clerk of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk into a Kafkaesque and surrealistic tonality).

I read a paper on Poplavsky’s surrealistic techniques at a scholarly gathering in Washington, D.C., and published it as an article in Slavic Review. A few graduate students purchased copies of the Dirigible as a result, but I knew that, with one or two exceptions, I had failed to convince my fellow Slavicists of the value of Poplavsky’s work. Just how badly I had failed was made clear to me by one of my most respected and discerning colleagues, who referred to him as a Parisian Vertinsky (a popular émigré nightclub singer) for the elect few.

Doing literary research in Europe in the fall of 1969, I made a point of seeking out and talking about Poplavsky with those who knew him or were his friends in an effort to reconstitute the reality of the man behind the poetry and the prose: the poets Alla Golovina and Sofiya Pregel; the painters Ida Karskaya (a marvelously warm and compassionate woman and a far more important painter than I had previously realized) and Constantine Terechkovitch; the critic Georgy Adamovich; the literary scholar Sophie Laffitte (née Glickman, later Sophie Stalinsky and Sophie Bonneau); and of course Poplavsky’s closest friend and the curator of his archive, Nikolai Tatishchev. All of them had observed Poplavsky at close range at one or another time in his life, all but the first two had poems dedicated to them in Flags, and all were willing to talk about him candidly and openly.

Some day I hope to transcribe these interviews in full, but for the moment I can say that their sum total has helped me to formulate the two sets of polarities that I feel primarily motivated and shaped Poplavsky’s literary art. The never-resolved dichotomy between poetry and painting is what accounts for the intensely visual nature of his imagery and much of his subject matter.

According to Terechkovitch, Poplavsky thought of himself during his first few years of exile not as a poet but as a painter. In 1922, Terechkovitch and Poplavsky traveled together to Berlin to study art. In Berlin, Poplavsky met the leading Soviet abstractionists as well as Chagall, Tchelitchew, and Chaim Soutine. But everyone, and particularly his teachers and colleagues, kept assuring him that he had no talent for painting. At first he tried to ignore their verdict. When he realized that they were right, the result was a total nervous breakdown that kept him bedridden for several weeks. Not only his highly personal articles on art exhibitions and painters, which appeared later in the journal Numbers (Chisla), but much of his prose and poetry testify to his never-ending yearning for mastery of the visual arts. His literary development reflects not so much the development of Russian émigré poetry as the evolution of the Paris schools of painting in the late 1920s and early 1930s—especially those of the Surrealists and the neo-Romantics.

The other central polarity has to do with his insatiable hunger for mystical experience (any kind of mysticism) and drug experience (any kind of drugs). It was his sister Natasha, that “dazzlingly educated and talented girl” his father wrote about, who introduced Boris to drugs by the time he was twelve. Her search for the ultimate high eventually took her to Madagascar, to Africa, to India, and finally to Shanghai, where she died in the late 1920s—of pneumonia, according to her father’s biography of Boris, but of a hopeless opium addiction according to everyone else.

Drugs remained a constant presence in Poplavsky’s life, both in Berlin and in Paris, and they (rather than imitation of his idol Rimbaud) account for the psychedelic swirling of images and the vivid, violent colors so typical of his verse. There are vast riches of authentic psychedelia to be mined in twentieth-century Russian poetry—Balmont and Khlebnikov are the names that come to mind most easily—but no one in the Russian tradition exploited the openings to other realities that drugs afford as systematically as did Poplavsky in the service of his poetry. There was, unfortunately, no LSD or mescaline to be had in those days, and he had to do it the hard way. (A tremendous stimulus for writing much of Flags came when his friend, the minor poet Boris Zakovich, the “Pusya” of Poplavsky’s journals, inherited a large supply of pain-killers and mind expanders from his dentist father.)

Those who are capable of appreciating the unique kind of beauty Poplavsky was thus able to glimpse and convey are the beneficiaries. Poplavsky’s religious quest was as intense as it was eclectic. A devout and loyal member of the Russian Orthodox Church (as his journals leave no doubt), he was powerfully drawn to Roman Catholic rite and lore, to Hindu mystics, to freemasonry, and to various forms of spiritualism.

One of the most intense experiences of his life, according to Tatishchev, occurred in 1918, when he met Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosophical and spiritual teacher, who took his hand and addressed a few words in English to him. Poplavsky understood no English, but he was moved to tears. In Berlin he had several discussions about anthroposophy with Andrei Bely. (His mother and aunt were close to Moscow anthroposophic circles.)

Boris Poplavsky was loved by a number of exceptional and brilliant women in his day, but the central relationship of his life, its keynote, was what he himself called his love affair with God (roman s Bogom). This affair is the subject of many poems in Snowy Hour; it is basic to his novels, and it is vividly reflected in the portions of his diaries which his friends Dina Shraibman and Nikolai Tatishchev published after his death. It was also discussed in print by no less a thinker than Nikolai Berdyaev in his puzzled, perplexed, and not entirely sympathetic review of Poplavsky’s journals [In Sovremennye zapiski Contemporary annals, no. 68 (1939)]. I’ll venture to say, with all due respect, that the celebrated philosopher simply failed to grasp the point of Poplavsky’s mysticism. Like art, like drugs, mysticism was for Poplavsky both a way of expanding his personal vision and a means of transforming unbearable social reality.

Poplavsky’s lecture on Marcel Proust and James Joyce (he is the only Russian writer I can think of besides Vladimir Nabokov who responded creatively to Ulysses), of which I have the outline, concludes with a surprising prediction of impending social revolution in Western Europe, which would combine social, sexual, and personal-mystical elements. For Poplavsky, the reason the Soviet experiment turned Russia into a “vast, barbarous, snow-clad field” was that in its attempt to build a better society it suppressed the human spirit and its most precious manifestations. This was well understood by Poplavsky’s friends Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky; yet one can easily imagine the shock that this conclusion of the Proust-Joyce lecture occasioned among the émigré audience when Poplavsky delivered it at the Kochevie Club on 22 October 1931.

Poplavsky’s career in the world of émigré letters was brief and meteoric. Only six years separate his literary debut from his death. During that time he impressed some of the most important older writers-in-exile (Merezhkovsky, Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov) and was acclaimed by the finest émigré critics (Mirsky, Mochulsky, Adamovich, Weidlé). He must have made an enormous impression on the émigré writers of his own age group, for he looms as a momentous presence in the subsequently written autobiographies and memoirs of Nina Berberova [The Italics Are Mine (New York, 1969)]; Yury Terapiano [Vstrechi [Encounters] (New York, 1953)]; Vladimir Varshavsky [Nezamechennoe pokolenie-The unnoticed generation (New York, 1956)]; and V. S. Yanovsky [“Eliseiskie polia” [Les Champs-Élysées], an excerpt from his memoirs, in Vozdushnye puti: Al’manakh [Aerial ways: An anthology], vol. 5 (New York, 1967), 175–200].

Vladimir Nabokov on two occasions singled out Poplavsky as the only poet of importance among the younger émigrés.20 At Poplavsky’s funeral, homage was paid to him by such diverse figures as Mark Aldanov, Aleksei Remizov, and Vladislav Khodasevich, whose eloquent obituary of Poplavsky was later reprinted in a collection of his critical essays [V. Khodasevich, “O smerti Poplavskogo” [On Poplavsky’s death], in Literaturnye stat’i i vospominaniia [Literary essays and memoirs] (New York, 1954)].

And yet, if we were to take a count, there would probably be fewer people in the world today who are aware of Poplavsky’s existence than there were in 1935. I am convinced that Boris Poplavsky has his readers somewhere. But where? Russians, either abroad or in the Soviet Union, don’t seem to want to read him. When Olga Carlisle included Denise Levertov’s fine translation of his poem, “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” in her book Poets on Streetcorners, the Moscow Literary Gazette took her to task for including this “tramp of whom no one has heard” among the other fine Russian poets in her anthology.

Publication of a few excerpts from The Apocalypse of Therese in George [Yury] Ivask’s Russian literary journal Experiments (Opyty) in the late 1950s was met with similar scorn by Russian newspapers in Paris and New York.

I tried submitting several of his unpublished poems and a highly interesting essay on Russian painting (which I obtained from Nikolai Tatishchev and which Jean-Claude Marcadé carefully annotated) to the New York Russian literary journal Novyi zhurnal. Two of the poems were published, with distorting “corrections” by the editor, while the remainder of them and the article were rejected after a two-year wait. [An English translation (by Peter Lawless) of Poplavsky’s article about the Berlin Exhibition of 1922 was eventually published: “The Notes of Boris Poplavsky,” intro. by Simon Karlinsky, annotations by Jean-Claude Marcadé, Art International 18 (1974): 62–65].

In a personal letter to me, the editor of Novyi zhurnal, Roman Goul, wrote that Poplavsky was “an utter madman” and proudly recalled how he and a group of friends once threw Poplavsky out of a Berlin beer hall.

And yet, as Vladimir Nabokov put it when I informed him of my interest in Poplavsky: “Yes, write something about him. He was, after all, the first hippy, the original flower child.” This might simplify things a bit, but it is not wrong. [His involvements with drugs and Hindu mystics are two of the more striking ways in which Poplavsky seems to foreshadow the hip culture, but that is by no means all. He dressed unconventionally, was never without a pair of dark glasses, thought bathing unnecessary, and would wear the same shirt for weeks on end. His favorite music was by Bach, Scriabin, and Stravinsky. A beard and long hair are the only ingredients that were missing, but that tonsorial style was inextricably connected with the priestly caste in Russian culture. There clearly would have been no point in Poplavsky’s trying to pass for an Orthodox priest.]

During the past few years young Slavic scholars in the West, those in their early twenties, have been repeatedly taking to Poplavsky like the proverbial duck to water. I’ve read with pleasure the intelligent papers Olga Bazanoff and Mike Hathaway wrote about him for Vsevolod Setchkarev’s seminar on émigré literature at Harvard, and Hélène Paschutinsky’s first-rate MA thesis on Poplavsky’s imagery, written under Sophie Laffitte’s direction at the Sorbonne. I am excited about Anthony Olcott’s Stanford thesis.

[Particularly impressive is Mlle Paschutinsky’s demonstration of the central function of the states of flying, floating, and levitation in Poplavsky’s poetry, and of his systematic use of objects and beings capable of these states: fish, ships, dirigibles, balloons, submarines, interplanetary rockets, clouds, comets, and angels, as well as the role of Poplavsky’s ubiquitous bridges, balconies, and towers, functioning as steppingstones to flight and levitation. The resultant antithesis of lightness and heaviness is then used by Mlle Paschutinsky to construct a highly convincing and logical system that provides us with a key not only to Poplavsky’s imagery, but also to the whole of his complex metaphysics. Should Poplavsky’s poetry ever gain the wide readership it so very much deserves, Hélène Paschutinsky’s study will certainly be a fundamental source on this poet.

[In subsequent years Paschutinsky, under the name of Elena Menegaldo, published widely on Poplavsky. See, for example, her important edition of Boris Poplavskii, Neizdannoe: dnevniki, stat’i, stikhi, pis’ma, ed. A. Bogoslovskii and E. Menegal’do (Moscow: Khristianskoe izd-vo, 1996), and subsequent editions of Poplavsky’s collected works. See also Dmitrii Tokarev, “Mezhdu Indiei i Gegelem” (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011)].

Perhaps Poplavsky was an émigré in more senses than one. Caught between cultures, he was also trapped in the wrong historical period. Many young non-Russians today should have no trouble identifying with him and seeing him as one of themselves. As Emmett Jarrett and Dick Lourie wrote,25 when I sent them some trots of his poetry for translation: “He’s dynamite…”

How to detonate him?


It is of interest to read Karlinsky’s early publication—dating from 1950—which was written as an introduction to a German translation of three of Poplavsky’s lyrics:

Boris Poplavsky’s name is completely unknown in his own country. Poplavsky was perhaps the most gifted representative of a generation of Russian émigré poets who were born in Russia but whose literary activity between the two wars took place everywhere: from Warsaw to Addis Ababa. Poplavsky spent his short life (1903–35) mostly in Paris. His literary reputation was based on a small volume of poems with the title Flags. This book was published in Paris and Tallinn in 1931.

After his death, a collection of poems with the title In a Wreath of Wax, a short novel (Homeward from Heaven), and Diaries were found among his papers. A selection of these works was published by Poplavsky’s friends. In Diaries, Poplavsky gives a detailed description of his poetic method. In this context, Poplavsky quotes an old Hindu poem in which an unknown poet is not satisfied with the sentence “The tree of my life yearns on a hill;” a few lines later the same poet gives a modified version of the same sentence: “The blue tree of my life yearns on a hill.” As Poplavsky noted, the color blue is added to express the intangible.

Nowadays Poplavsky’s poetic method seems to be similar to French Surrealism, and Diaries shows that he had studied and admired the writings of André Breton. When reading Poplavsky’s poems one is reminded of surrealistic paintings.

[Translated by Joachim Klein, from S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 50].


Simon Karlinsky (1924–2009) was a prolific scholar of modern Russian literature who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, from 1964 to 1991. This memoir is an excerpt from Freedom From Violence and Lies, a collection of Karlinsky’s essays.


Featured: Boris Poplavsky, at KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, Department Store of the West), Berlin, 1922.

François Villon, the Heavenly Robber

This essay, by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was written in 1910 (or perhaps 1912) and revised in 1927 and is a tribute not only to the medieval poet, but a meditation on exile and the quest for unadorned reality and the Divine.


I

Astronomers accurately predict the return of a comet, after a long period of time. For those who know Villon, the Verlaine phenomenon appears to be just such an astronomical miracle. The resonance of both voices is strikingly similar. But apart from timbre and biography, the two poets are bound together by almost the same mission in the literature of their time. Both were destined to appear in an age of artificial, hothouse poetry, and just as Verlaine smashed the serres chaudes [an allusion to Maeterlinck’s collection of poems Hothouses (1889)] of symbolism, Villon challenged the mighty rhetorical school that can rightly be considered fifteenth-century symbolism. The famous Roman de la Rose first built an impenetrable fence, within which the warming atmosphere necessary for the survival of the allegories created by this Romance continued to flourish. Love, Danger, Hate, and Insidiousness are not dead abstractions. They are not incorporeal. Medieval poetry gives these ghosts an astral body, as it were, and tenderly cares for the artificial air so necessary to sustain their fragile existence. The garden where these peculiar characters live is enclosed by a high wall. The lover, as the beginning of the Roman de la Rose tells us, wandered for a long time around this fence in a vain search for an unobtrusive entrance.

Poetry and life in the fifteenth century were two independent, hostile dimensions. It is hard to believe that Maître Allain Chartier was subjected to real persecution and endured life’s troubles, arming public opinion of the time with a too-harsh sentence on the Cruel Lady, whom he drowned in a well of tears, after a brilliant trial, with all the subtleties of medieval legal procedure. Fifteenth-century poetry is autonomous; it occupies a place in the culture of the time, like a state within a state. Recall the Court of Love of Charles VI: a variety of seven hundred ranks, from the highest signoria to petty bourgeois and lower clerics. The exceptionally literary character of this institution explains the disdain for class partitions. The hypnosis of literature was so strong that members of such associations walked around the streets adorned with green wreaths, a symbol of falling in love, wishing to prolong the literary dream in reality.

II

François Montcorbier (de Loge) was born in Paris in 1431, during the English rule. The poverty that surrounded his cradle combined with the misery of the people and, in particular, with the misery of the capital. One might expect the literature of the time to be filled with patriotic pathos and a thirst for revenge for the offended dignity of the nation. Neither Villon nor his contemporaries, however, had such sentiments. France, enslaved by foreigners, showed herself to be a real woman. As a woman in captivity, she gave her main attention to the minutiae of her cultural and domestic toilette, looking curiously at the victors. High society, following its poets, was still carried away dreaming into the fourth dimension of the Gardens of Love and the Gardens of Joy, while for the people the tavern lights were lit in the evenings and farces and mysteries played out on holidays.

The feminine and passive era left a deep imprint on Villon’s destiny and character. Throughout his dissolute life he carried the unshakable conviction that someone had to take care of him, manage his affairs and bail him out of difficulties. Even as a mature man, thrown by the Bishop of Orleans into the lower dungeon of Meung sur Loire, he cried out to his friends: “Le laisserez-vous là, le pauvre Villon” [Will you leave there, poor Villon]. Francois Montcorbier’s social career began when he was taken into the care of Guillaume Villon, honorary canon of the monastery church of Saint Benoit le Bestourné. By Villon’s own admission, the old canon was “more than a mother” to him. In 1449 he received his baccalaureate degree; in 1452 his licentiate and maître. “Oh Lord, if I had studied in the days of my reckless youth and devoted myself to good manners—I would have had a home and a soft bed. But what can I say! I ran away from school like a wicked boy; as I write these words my heart bleeds.” Strange as it may seem, Maitre François Villon at one time had several pupils and taught them, as best he could, the wisdom of school. But, in his characteristic honesty, he was aware that he had no right to be called Master, and he preferred to call himself a “poor little scholar” in his ballads. And it was especially difficult for Villon to study, since, as if on purpose, the student riots of 1451-1453 happened during his years of study.

Medieval people liked to think of themselves as children of the city, the church, the university. But the “children of the university” exceptionally acquired a taste for mischief. A heroic hunt was organized for the most popular signs of the Paris market. The deer was to marry the Goat and the Bear, and the Parrot was supposed to be presented to the young as a gift. The students stole a boundary stone from the possessions of Mademoiselle La Bryuère, erected it on Mount St. Genevieve, calling it La Vesse (the fart) and, forcibly grabbing it from authorities, fastened it to the spot with iron hoops. On the round stone they placed another, oblong one, the Pêt au Diable, and worshipped them at night, showering them with flowers, dancing around them to the sound of flutes and tambourines. The enraged butchers and the offended lady made a case. The Prevost of Paris declared war on the students. The two jurisdictions clashed—and the defiant sergeants had to kneel, with lighted candles in their hands, to beg the rector’s forgiveness. Villon, who was undoubtedly at the center of these events, chronicled them in his novel Pêt au Diable [the Devil’s Fart], which has not survived.

III

Villon was a Parisian. He loved the city and idleness. He had no affection for nature and even mocked it. Already in the fifteenth century, Paris was the sea in which one could swim without being bored and forgetting about the rest of the universe. But how easy it is to stumble upon one of the countless reefs of idle existence! Villon became a murderer. The passivity of his fate is remarkable. It is as if it were waiting to be impregnated by chance, whether evil or good. In a ridiculous street fight on June 5, Villon kills the priest Chermoit with a heavy stone. Sentenced to hang, he appealed and, pardoned, went into exile. Vagrancy finally shook his morals, bringing him into the criminal gang la Coquille, of which he became a member. On his return to Paris, he participated in a major theft at the Collège de Navarre and immediately fled to Angers—because of unrequited love, he asserted, but in reality to set things up for robbing his rich uncle. Fleeing from the Parisian skyline, Villon published the Little Testament. Years of indiscriminate wandering followed, with stops at feudal courts and prisons. Amnestied by Louis XI on 2 October 1461, Villon went into deep creative turmoil, his thoughts and feelings became unusually acute, and he created the Great Testament, his monument to the ages. In November 1463 Francois Villon was an eye-witness to a quarrel and a murder in the Rue Saint Jacques. Here ends our account of his life and his dark biography.

IV

The fifteenth century was cruel to personal fates. It turned many decent and sober people into Job, grumbling at the bottom of their stinking dungeons and accusing God of injustice. A special kind of prison poetry was created, imbued with biblical bitterness and severity, as far as it is accessible to the polite Romance soul. But out of the chorus of prisoners, Villon’s voice stands out sharply. His rebellion is more like a court trial than a rebellion. He managed to combine in one person the plaintiff and the defendant. Villon’s attitude never crossed the known boundaries of intimacy. He is gentle, considerate, caring to himself no more than a good lawyer is to his client. Self-pity is a parasitic feeling, detrimental to the soul and the body. But the dry legal pity with which Villon invests himself is for him a source of vivacity and unwavering confidence in the rightness of his “case.” A thoroughly immoral “amoral” man, as a true descendant of the Romans, he lives entirely in the legal world and cannot think of any relationship outside the jurisdiction and norm. The lyric poet, by nature, is a bipolar being, capable of innumerable cleavages in the name of inner dialogue. In no one is this “lyrical hermaphroditism” more pronounced than in Villon. What a diverse selection of charming duets: the grief-stricken and the comforter, mother and child, judge and defendant, proprietor and beggar.

Property, all his life, beckoned to Villon like a musical siren and made him a thief… and a poet. A miserable vagabond, he appropriated for himself the goods unavailable to him with a sharp irony.

Modern French Symbolists are in love with things, like possessive owners. Perhaps the very “soul of things” is nothing other than the sense of ownership, spiritualized and ennobled in the laboratory of successive generations. Villon was well aware of the gulf between subject and object, but understood it as the impossibility of possession. The moon and other neutral “objects” are irrevocably excluded from his poetic habitat. On the other hand, he is immediately animated when he speaks of ducks roasted with sauce or of eternal bliss, which he never loses the final hope of appropriating for himself.

Villon paints a charming intérieur in Dutch taste, peeking through the keyhole.

V

Villon’s sympathy for the scum of society, for everything suspicious and criminal, is by no means demonic. The shady company, which he so quickly and intimately became part of, captivated his feminine nature with a great temperament, a powerful rhythm of life that he could not find in other walks of life. One should listen with what savor Villon tells, in the Ballade de la grosse Margot, about the profession of pimping, to which he was obviously no stranger: “When clients come, I grab a jug and run for wine.”

Neither ebbing feudalism nor the newly emerged bourgeoisie, with its pull for Flemish gravity and importance, could provide an outlet to the enormous dynamic capacity, somehow miraculously accumulated and concentrated in the Parisian cleric. Withered and black, beardless, as thin as a Chimera, with a head that resembled, by his own admission, a peeled and toasted walnut, hiding his sword in the half-woman’s garb of a student—Villon lived in Paris like a squirrel in a wheel, not knowing a moment’s peace. He loved the ravenous, gaunt beast in him and treasured his battered skin: “Isn’t it true, Granier, that I did well to appeal,” he writes to his prosecutor, having escaped the gallows, “not every beast would have managed to wriggle out like that.” If Villon had been able to give his poetic credo, he would surely have exclaimed, like Verlaine:

Du mouvement avant toute chose! [Movement above all else – Verlaine: Music above all]

A powerful visionary, he dreams of his own hanging, on the eve of his probable execution. But, strangely, with incomprehensible exasperation and rhythmic fervor, he depicts in his ballad how the wind sways the bodies of the unfortunate, back and forth, at will… And he endows death with dynamic qualities and here manages to show a love of rhythm and movement… I think it wasn’t the demonism that captivated Villon, but the dynamics of the crime. I don’t know if there is an inverse relationship between the moral and the dynamic of the soul? In any case, both of Villon’s Testaments, big and little—this feast of magnificent rhythms, the kind French poetry still does not know—are incurably immoral.

The wretched vagabond writes his will twice, distributing left and right his imaginary possessions like a poet, ironically asserting his dominion over all the things he wishes to possess: if Villon’s mental experiences, for all their originality, were not particularly profound, his relationships in life—a tangled web of acquaintances, connections, accounts—represented a complex of ingenious complexity. This man contrived to become a living, vital relation to a huge number of persons of the most varied rank, at all rungs of the social ladder, from the thief to the bishop, from the alewife to the prince. With what pleasure he tells their background! How precise and marked he is! Villon’s Testaments are ever captivating because they report a lot of accurate information. The reader feels that he can make use of them, and he feels like a contemporary of the poet. The present moment can withstand the pressure of centuries and retain its integrity, remain the same “now.” One has only to be able to pluck it out of the soil of time without damaging its roots—otherwise it will wither away. Villon knew how to do this. The bell of the Sorbonne that interrupted his work on the Little Testament still rings.

Like the troubadour princes, Villon “sang in his Latin”: once, as a schoolboy, he had heard of Alcibiades—and as a result the stranger Archipiade joins the graceful procession of the Ladies of former times.

VI

The Middle Ages clung tenaciously to its children and did not voluntarily yield to the Renaissance. The blood of the true Middle Ages flowed in Villon’s veins. To it he owed his integrity, his temperament, his spiritual peculiarity. The physiology of the Gothic—and such it was, and the Middle Ages are precisely the physiologically-genius era—replaced Villon’s worldview and rewarded him abundantly for his lack of a traditional connection to the past. Moreover, it provided him with a place of honor in the future, as nineteenth-century French poetry drew its strength from the same national treasury, the Gothic. They will say: what has the magnificent rhythmic of the Testaments, now trickling like a bilboquet, now slowed down like a church cantilena, to do with the mastery of Gothic architects? But isn’t the Gothic the triumph of dynamism? Another question is, what is more fluid, more dynamic—the Gothic cathedral or the oceanic ripple? What, if not a sense of architectonics, explains the wondrous balance of the stanza in which Villon entrusts his soul to the Trinity through the Mother of God—the Chambre dela Divinité—and the nine heavenly legions. It is not an anemic flight on the wax wings of immortality, but an architecturally based ascent, corresponding to the tiers of the Gothic cathedral. He who first proclaimed in architecture the moving equilibrium of the masses and built the crossed vault gave an ingenious expression to the psychological essence of feudalism.

Medieval man considered himself in the world building as necessary and bound as any stone in the Gothic edifice, enduring with dignity the pressure of his neighbors and entering as an inevitable stake in the general game of forces. To serve was not only to be active for the common good. Unconsciously, medieval man regarded service, a kind of deed, as the unvarnished fact of his existence. Villon, an afterthought, an epigone of the feudal worldview, was immune to its ethical side, the circular bond. The stable, moral in the Gothic was quite alien to him. On the other hand, indifferent to the dynamic, he elevated it to the level of amorality. Villon twice received letters of pardon—lettres de remission—from kings: Charles VII and Louis XI. He was firmly convinced that he would receive the same letter from God, with forgiveness for all his sins. Perhaps, in the spirit of his dry and reasoned mysticism, he put up the ladder of feudal jurisdictions into infinity, and a wild but deeply feudal feeling roamed vaguely in his soul that there was a God above God…

“I know well that I am not the son of an angel crowned with the diadem of a star or another planet,” said of himself the poor Parisian schoolboy, capable of much for a good dinner.

Such denials are tantamount to positive certainties.

1910 (1912?), 1927


Featured: “François Villon,” woodcut from Grand Testament de Maistre François Villon, 1489.

William de Morgan

This biographical essay was published in 1917 (in the March issue of The North American Review). Although little know today, William de Morgan (1839-1917) was a well-known potter, tile-maker and then a widely read novelist, who was a friend of both William Morris and Charles Dickens.

The author of this essay, William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943), the American scholar, single-handedly promoted and popularized the novel in America, especially by way of his essays on various novelists, of which this is one.


It was in August, 1911, that I first saw William De Morgan. The meeting—ever memorable to me—took place at Church Street in Chelsea, in his own home, a building filled with specimens of his tiles and graced with his wife’s paintings. After some time, we adjourned to what the English call a garden and what is known in America as the back yard. He fetched the manuscript of a nearly-completed novel, A Likely Story, and read aloud many of the detailed chapter-headings, chuckling with delight (even as a diplomat) over the apparently candid profusion of language with the successful concealment of the writer’s intention. For example (A chuckle after each sentence):

How Fortune’s Toy and the Sport of Circumstances fell in love with one of his nurses. Prose composition. Lady Upwell’s majesty, and the Queen’s. No engagement. The African War and Justifiable Fratricide. Cain. Madeline’s big dog Caesar. Cats. Ormuzd and Ahriman. A handy little Veldt. Madeline’s Japanese kimono. A discussion of the nature of Dreams. Never mind Athenaeus. Look at the prophet Daniel. Sir Stopleigh’s great-aunt Dorothea’s twins. The Circulating Library and the potted shrimps. How Madeline read the manuscript in bed, and took care not to set fire to the curtains.

Mr. De Morgan was then seventy-one years old. He was tall and thin. The latter adjective comes near to expressing his entire physical presence in one word. Everything was thin. His body was thin, his beard was thin, his voice was thin. But his nature and his manner had all the heartiness and geniality we commonly associate with rotundity. He was in fact exactly the kind of man that the author of his novels ought to have been. What more can one say?

In the Spring of the following year, I saw Mr. and Mrs. De Morgan again, this time in their apartment on the Viale Milton in Florence. It was deep in the afternoon, and a pile of manuscript a foot high rested on the table, the ink on the summit not yet dry. “The American people do not like my last two books,” said he with a cheerful smile, “but perhaps they will like this one, for it is the most De Morgany novel I have yet written.” His hope and his statement were both justified, for the manuscript was the first part of When Ghost Meets Ghost. Unlike many writers, he found the morning hours unfavorable for original composition. ” I am an old man, and my vitality does not reach much strength until late in the day. I do my best writing between tea and dinner.”

We talked of the Titanic, and of the war that Italy had carried into Africa. At that time he and I, with all the difference between us that the possession of genius gave to him, had one thing in common: we were both pacifists. Knowing his passionate love of Italy, I feared that he would ap prove of the war, and glory in the certainty of Italy’s victory. I was happy to find that his love for the country and for the people did not blind him to the wickedness of that selfish and greedy war. … It is only fair to him to say that his pacifist principles failed to survive the early days of August, 1914. He was aggressively for England to his last breath, and his letters showed constant surprise at his own thirst for blood. Yet while rejoicing in English victories, he could not help deploring the loss of many brave enemies of his country. In October, 1914, he wrote to me:

I am sorry to say that I am barbarous by nature and catch myself gloating over slaughter—slaughter of Germans, of course!—half of them men I should have liked—a tenth of them men I should have loved. It is sickening—but…

Again, in December, 1915:

I put aside my long novel, because, with Kultur in full swing, I felt I should spoil it. I took up an old beginning—sketched in immediately after Joe Vance—and have got about half-way through, with great difficulty. The trail of the poison gas is over us all here, and I can only get poor comfort from thinking what a many submarines we have made permanently so. All the same, one of my favourite employments is thinking how to add to their number—a grisly committee—coffinsfull of men very like our own. For all seamen are noble, because they live face to face with Death.

In our London conversation he told me the now familiar details of his becoming an author. Never during his long life had he felt the least flicker of literary ambition. In his letters he was always insisting on the additional fact that he had never read anything: “I scarcely looked in a book, un less it was about pots and mechanism, for forty long years. There’s a confession!—a little exaggerated in form from chagrin at the truth of its spirit, but substantially true for all that.” As a matter of fact, he knew Dickens as few readers have ever known him, and he had many of the shorter poems of Browning by heart, though he never read The Ring and the Book.

If he had not taken a slight cold in the head when he was sixty-four he might never have written a novel. This cold developed into a severe attack of influenza, and as he lay in bed, he amused himself by writing the first two chapters of Joseph Vance. “If I had not had the ‘flu,’ I should not have thought of writing a book. I started Joseph Vance ‘just for a lark.’” He had in mind no scenario, no plot, no plan, no idea whatever of the course of the story, or of what would become of any one of the characters. He just began to write, and his writing ceased—forever, as he thought—with his recovery. The world owes his completion of the story to Mrs. De Morgan, who insisted on his continuing. Then he came near destroying the early chapters, for they seemed to him to be too much like Dickens. In 1905 he was half-way through Joseph Vance, and it was published in July, 1906, when he was sixty-six years old. Its rejection by a publisher, owing to the appalling size of the manuscript, its subsequent acceptance by Mr. Heinemann, who saw it only after it had been typewritten, and its instant success, are now matters of general knowledge.

In an article I sent him he was impressed by the “sudden” opening of a story by Pushkin, Tolstoi’s delighted comment upon it, the immediate challenge of a friend to imitate it, with the result—the first page of Anna Karenina. In 1910 he wrote to me:

I must give you a parallel case to yours. Somehow Good began thus: I had written a good deal of another story, and liked it. I read it to my wife, and she didn’t. She said, “Why can’t you write a story with an ordinary beginning?” I said, “What sort?” and she answered, “Well—for instance: ‘He took his fare in the two-penny tube. Said I, “An admirable beginning!” and put my story in hand away, and began writing forthwith what is now Chap. 2 of the book. Chap. 1 was written long after, to square it all up. But the incident was substantially the Tolstoi story again, and chimes with all your comment on it.

The above account of the origin of Somehow Good is the more interesting because, of all his novels, this has the most orderly and best-constructed plot, and, viewed merely as a story, is his masterpiece. Which does not mean that I would trade it for Joseph Vance. To my mind his finest novel is the first one, and his greatest character is old Christopher Vance. With all my heart I hope that the latest book he was working on was completed, for he wrote me that it was even more “demorganatic” than the demorgany Ghosts.

He was deeply interested when I told him that the John Hubbard Curtis prize at Yale University in 1909 was offered for the best composition on the three novels which he had published before that year. He asked if he might see the successful essay, which was written by Mr. Henry Dennis Hammond, an undergraduate from Tennessee, and published in the Yale Courant for June, 1909. Two copies were sent him; one he returned to the young author, with highly diverting (and important) manuscript marginal notes. These notes were accompanied by a cordial letter, from which I make the following extracts:

I have scarcely an exception to take. What I have is to he found among some jotted comments on the margins of the Courant that I return to you. I daresay you will see that your irreverence (shall I call it?) for Dickens has occasioned some implication of cavil from me.

But all you young men are tarred with the same feather nowadays. Your remark about the red cap in David Copperfield made me re-read the chapter. I am obliged to confess that the red cap is absurd—a mere stage expedient ! He would have seen the hair, like enough. But, oh dear! What a puny scribbler that re-reading made me feel!

Here follow some of the marginal annotations, which explain themselves:

I am a successful imposter about music—I know nothing of it—but am a very good listener… I must have omitted some distinguishing points in these folk, to leave the impression of similitude. You see, I know them intimately still, and can assure you that they are, as a matter of fact, quite different. Dear, good old Mrs. Heath was worth both the others twice over… Come, I say—isn’t it quiet, wise, and lovable to smoke cigarettes? Very!—I think: Still, it’s true poor Janey died before English girls took to ‘baccy… But then Dickens was my idol in childhood, boyhood, youthhood, manhood, and so on to a decade of senility—even until now… Concerning realism and idealism, I’m blessed if I know which is which!… the attempt is to found the ghosts only on authentic ghost stories with the same explanations, if any… The first meeting of David C [opperfield] and Dora covers any number of sins… Anyhow, folk read the stories, and there will be another Sept. 23.

Merely to call the roll of Mr. De Morgan’s works is impressive, when we remember their size, their excellence, and the short period of time in which all were written: In eight years this wonderful old man published over a million words, and left several hundred thousand in manuscript—every word written by hand. The mere mechanical labor of writing and proofreading on so gigantic a scale inspires respect. Joseph Vance appeared in 1906; Alice-for-Short in 1907; Somehow Good in 1908; It Never Can Happen Again in 1909; An Affair of Dishonour in 1910; A Likely Story in 1911, When Ghost Meets Ghost in 1914.

The romantic revival in modern English fiction, which negatively received its impelling force from the excesses of naturalism, and positively from the precepts and practice of Stevenson, flourished mightily during the decade from 1894 to 1904. Unfortunately no works of genius appeared, and it was largely a fire of straw. Then just at the time when three phenomena were apparently becoming obsolescent—pains taking realism, very lengthy novels, and the “mid-Victorian” manner—William De Morgan appeared on the scene with Joseph Vance, a mid-Victorian realistic story containing—after William Heinemann had exercised the shears—two hundred and eighty thousand words! Within a short space of time the book had just as many readers as it had words. This is what Carlyle would have called “a fact in natural history,” from which we are at liberty to draw conclusions. One conclusion is that William De Morgan has had more influence on the course of fiction in the twentieth century than any other writer in English. For he gave new vogue to what I call the “life” novel, which differs from the popular novels of the ‘eighties as Reality differs from Realism, and whose sincere aim is to see life steadily and see it whole. In England, Arnold Bennett published The Old Wives’ Tale in 1908; H. G. Wells published Tono-Bungay in 1909; and the same year marked the appearance in America of A Certain Rich Man, by William Allen White. These three books are excellent examples of the new fashion, or the old fashion revived, which ever you choose to call it.

Henry James has said somewhere that in the art of fiction and drama we experience two delights: the delight of surprise and the delight of recognition. Of these happy emotions, readers of Mr. De Morgan feel chiefly the latter kind; although Somehow Good contained plenty of surprises. Nearly every page of his longer books reminds us of our own observations or of our own hearts; and many pages drew from solitary readers a warmly joyous response. Even the most minute facts of life become so interesting when accurately painted or penned, that the artist’s victim actually receives a sensation of pleasure so sudden and so sharp that it resembles a shock. One cannot possibly read Joseph Vance or When Ghost Meets Ghost with an even mind.

It is true that William De Morgan wrote An Affair of Dishonour. But Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities; Thackeray wrote Esmond and The Virginians; George Eliot wrote Romola; and Charles Reade wrote The Cloister and the Hearth. Why should we have quarreled with him about that? Any realistic writer may surely take a holiday in the country of Romance, if he chooses to do so. Yet the American attitude toward this particular historical romance was positively hostile; so hostile, that not only did the An Affair of Dishonour fail from the publishers’ point of view, but the four novels that preceded it practically ceased to sell for a whole year; at least, so their author told me.

He took the rebuff good naturedly, and extracted humor from the fact, as the postscript to A Likely Story proves; but he could not understand why he should be “punished” for daring to write an unanticipated work. I tried to explain to him that the anger of the American public was in reality complimentary; that he had set so high a standard in his four novels that the expectation of a vast circle of men and women was enormously keen, and that from a man of genius we always expect a work of genius, which no man—except perhaps Milton—has been able invariably to supply. He was not comforted. Seven years have passed since the publication of An Affair of Dishonour; and it is certain that the book ranks higher in the estimation of intelligent readers than it did during the first months that followed its appearance. It is, in fact, a powerful story, told with great art; destined, I think, to have a permanent place in English fiction. It lacks the irresistible charm of the other books; but it is rich in vitality.

After reading the first four novels, I inquired of the author: “Why do you make elderly women so disgustingly unattractive? Does your sympathy with life desert you here?” And what an overwhelming reply I received in When Ghost Meets Ghost! Were there ever two such protagonists? Not elderly, but old—tremendously old, aged, venerable. And what floods of love and sympathy the novelist has poured out on these frail old waifs of time! How one feels, like a mighty stream running under and all through the course of this strange story, the indestructible power of the Ultimate Reality in the universe—Love, Love Divine.

This leads me to the final reflection that William De Morgan was not only an artist, and a novelist, and a humorist: he was also a philosopher. Each one of his stories has a special motif, a central driving idea. I mean that underneath all the kindly tolerance through which every great humorist regards the world, underneath all the gentle irony and the whimsicality, the ground of these books is profoundly spiritual.

William De Morgan, like his brilliant father, belonged to the believers, and not to the skeptics. He was of those who affirm, rather than of those who deny. He was a convinced believer in personal immortality, or “immortalism,” as he preferred to call it. He believed that all men and women have within them the possibility of eternal development; those whose souls develop day by day are “good” characters; those whose souls do not advance are “bad” characters. This is the fundamental distinction in his novels between folk who are admirable and folk who are not. In the fortieth chapter of Joseph Vance—a chapter that we ought to read over and over again—we find a sentence that, although spoken by one of the characters, reflects faithfully the philosophy of William De Morgan, who believed, with all his strength, in God the Father Almighty and in the Life Everlasting: “The highest good is the growth of the Soul, and the greatest man is he who rejoices most in great fulfilments of the will of God.”


Featured: “William De Morgan,” by Evelyn De Morgan; painted in 1909.