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The Chronicle of Doubt

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

“i may doubt the reality of everything, but not the reality of my doubt.”—The Counterfeiters

Andre Gide

The writer, now, is being asked to function in a number of ways which have only accidental connections with writing: as prophet and seer, publicist and patriot, preacher, physician, and pamphleteer. One need remind oneself only of Milton and Bunyan, of Blake and Shelley, to remember that all these functions have been worthily performed by writers in the past. Today, however, these functions seem to require from the writer a particular act of faith which, as writer, he can hardly be prepared to make. That this faith involves warfare is in itself a difficulty for men educated in the sinister school of Versailles, but that it involves further some ill-defined conception of individualism is a difficulty almost insuperable for any sensitive modern spirit. For individualism has very nearly vanished from the world itself; if it exists at all it is no longer in history but vestigially in the minds of some men. Consider the ultimate meaning for the individual of every great intellectual development of modern times: the Newtonian universe and its revisions made him the victim of mathematical necessity; the Darwinian scheme, of biological necessity; the Marxian analysis, of economic necessity; the Freudian psychology, of the necessities of his own diminished experience. No serious modern writer has escaped the sense of doom, of victimization, which is the sum of these conceptions for the individual. Yet it is only because the writer has responded immediately to his world and, which is precisely his function, given form to its tone and tempo, that he has been exhorted and upbraided from our quasi-official pulpits. Allow a layman to defend him.

At the outbreak of the first World War Henry James wrote: “To have to take it all for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning, is too tragic for any words.” The sense of dismay, of the unimportance of his own function in life (and he was an old man then) echoes in his cry. This year we hear that cry again, more shrill, more desperate, in the suicide note of Virginia Woolf: “I have a feeling I shall go mad. I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times. I hear voices and I cannot concentrate on my work. I fought against it. I cannot fight any longer.” These two statements, made at the beginning and at the end of twenty-five years of horror, summarize the dilemma of the writer in the modern world. Only the hack writer has escaped the necessary commitment of himself to a literature of terror; yet no writer begins with the impulse to terrorism. That is his dilemma: the conflict between his impulse, which is to celebrate human experience, and his honesty, which has degraded it.

We all agree that war is the great symptom of our time, the characteristic fact; and most of us—when we look beyond the immediate horror and feel more than our immediate and necessary hate—agree that war, like all historical events, is a symptom, that this World War is the gigantic symbol of a violent transition which is being effected between one civilization and another. How long before the first World War this transition was in progress, or how long after the present war it can continue, are questions which elude an answer. Only the arrogant and the foolish care to do more than describe in this period. I should like here to describe a few familiar characteristics of modern fiction, specifically of the major documents of British fiction written between these wars, to show what an impact this transition has made on literature, what a toll, indeed, it has inevitably taken.

Nineteenth century poets felt the breakdown of the old civilization and the disappearance of its values long before novelists did, and long before these wars began. Tennyson’s career is the painful spectacle of a man persistently writing poetry against his better judgment. Matthew Arnold, who believed that the composition of poetry required two conditions, “the power of the man and the power of the moment,” gave up entirely in mid-career, because the moment no longer afforded subject matter proper to poetry. In our own time serious writers like Eliot have been able to write poetry only by contriving a definition wholly different. But novelists in the nineteenth century were slower to perceive than poets. The novel was written according to a few fixed formulas from which almost no novelist felt it necessary to deviate. When writers like Dickens or Thackeray or George Eliot or Meredith—different as these writers are—began to compose a novel, they were not much troubled by problems of form; only James and Conrad, before 1914, were. The established conventions were there, the ready mold into which to pour their ideas. Widely as the specific ideas of nineteenth century novelists differed, the novelists nevertheless all had essentially the same basic ideas, the same beliefs, which, without statement, commanded the ready assent of all readers. Taken together, these ideas were the moral backbone of nineteenth century civilization, that civilization which ended in 1914, and from the rubble of which, clearly, we are still struggling.

To observe how completely these beliefs—we may classify them loosely as religious, social, intellectual, and domestic— have vanished, we need ask ourselves only one quite simple question. Has a single serious novel been written since 1914 in which the author assumed the validity, or even the relevance, of any of those ideas of moral value which fall into this classification? One serious novel in which any of the old sanctions held—God, the Christian virtues, the authority of the church; a fixed social structure, free capitalism, empire; science and mechanical progress; the family, romantic love, marriage? I can think of none. I am not, of course, thinking of historical fiction, which may not be regarded as “serious” for the very reason that it accepts (whether or not it sentimentalizes) the values of a vanished time and place; nor of what is known as “regional” writing, most of which contents itself with eccentricities and localisms rather than with more universal, or at least more symptomatic modes of character; nor am I thinking either of the work of a group of writers— Galsworthy, Bennett, Wells, and others—who were not the first of the twentieth century novelists but the last of the nineteenth. Galsworthy, describing the break-up of the traditions of family and property, still appealed to the sentiment of justice as the nineteenth century had conceived it. Wells, who saw that “the organizing ideas have slackened, the old habitual bonds have relaxed or altogether come undone,” still appeals, like nineteenth century writers, to the pure intellectualism of science, to faith in technological progress. (One need read only a page anywhere in Huxley or Lawrence to see how completely that ideal has vanished.) All these writers still utilized the old “organizing ideas” and all still wrote in the accepted forms which had so long been congenial to those ideas.

Then the explosion—so long sizzling at the fuse—which “the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning” came, and with it, chaos—a society without moral structure. Organization had collapsed into a transitional anarchy, and the novelist found himself without subject matter. The old subject matter was dead, and the values on which to construct the new had not yet been devised. Then all perceptive men recognized the tragic situation that Arnold had recognized sixty years before:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born.

And writers continued to do what they can only do at any time—to record imaginatively and with a scrupulous honesty unknown to an always hopeful citizenry, the circumstances in which they found themselves.


The writer in all times has only two preoccupations: his subject matter, or what he wishes to say; and his style and method, or the way in which he wishes to say it. In general, as in the nineteenth century, when the writer is convinced of the importance of the first, he tends to slight the second. On the other hand, when, as in the “aesthetic movement” at the end of the century, writers are not impressed with the importance of what they are saying, they become more and more fastidious about style and technique, about the elaboration of devices and the amplification of method. And what happened after 1914 was exactly this: finding themselves without conviction as to subject matter, most novelists became experimentalists in form. So true is this generalization that one may very nearly use it as the test of modernity. No period in the novel has been richer in experiment, in the elaboration of technique, in the disciplined pursuit of style; correspondingly, no period has been more barren of ideas.

H. G. Wells has conveniently said: “I am outside the hierarchy of conscious and deliberate writers altogether. I am the absolute antithesis of Mr. James Joyce . . . Long ago, living in close conversational proximity to Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer, I escaped from under their immense artistic preoccupations by calling myself a journalist.” Precisely so; and to the extent that he escaped them, he is a Victorian. It is interesting, further, to observe that of the four major British novelists of the period 1914-1941—James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf—it is Lawrence, the one member of the group who was convinced of the importance of his message, who was again the least conscious stylist, the least concerned with method, the most casual in form.

Yet he too is relevant to the following consideration of the characteristic devices of modern fiction. He, at any rate, made the most literal application to fiction of the psychology of the irrational. The conclusions of Freud and his followers state, as everyone now knows, that our motives are buried, largely unknown to us, and find their source not on the level of rationality, in the conscious mind, the will, but on the level of irrationality, in the unconscious, that reservoir of all the fragments of our experience, all memory, all dream, in which the personality is captive. Man is made primitive, and manners and morals no longer refer to good and evil, to grace and the lack of it. No noble thing is what it seems.

Immediately this psychology supplied fiction with a number of fresh narrative possibilities; for the emphasis which it placed on sex relationship resulted in a certain schematiza-tion of the human situation in various patterns of universal compulsion. The central situations in both “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” are such Freudian archetypes—but these are only single strands in the mammoth complexities of these works. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” is a restricted use of the mother-son situation; and his “Rainbow” complicates the pattern only in so far as it repeats the father-mother-daughter situation in a second generation. Any reader can recall any number of modern novels whose central situation derives as directly and as consciously from the Freudian schematization as these.

This is an interesting development in our fiction, but it is not as basic as a less immediate result of the psychology of the irrational. Long before Freud we had works which suggested Freudian patterns; but Oedipus and Hamlet, for example, are heroic characters. The situations are not new but the explanations are. The new explanations treat conduct as the twisted compulsion of instincts which another generation thought of as sordid at best, perverted at worst. Good and evil disappear with the concept of “conditioning”; and from the disappearance of good and evil follows the disappearance of what literature in the past had pictured as nobility in human character. The hero disappears. For the hero is that exalted, generous soul who exercises his will in intelligent defiance and conflict, who conducts his conflict in terms of an acceptable moral premise. In the new psychology, morals are relative, conflict is compensation, nobility is a dream. Here and there and every week in the popular reviews, writers, some wistfully, some bludgeoningly, ask that Victorian nobility return to our literature; but first we must do one of two impossible things—abolish what is perhaps the most important single development in modern intellectual life, or return to an earlier world than ours. If we are to have nobility again, it will not be today, and it will be of another order. Malraux, I think, indicates that order, but almost no one else; not, certainly, Mann, great as he may be.

In older fiction the hero existed through a process of idealization which the new psychology makes impossible. Today the artist’s obligation is to present his character with complete psychological realism, and no hero can withstand this process. Necessarily, the more we know of a man, the less we admire him. The moment that Hamlet is viewed as the subject of a mother complex he ceases to be a hero. Under the Freudian scrutiny the best man is only the average man, a Leopold Bloom. “Soul” as a concept of character has vanished; instead we have the senses, sensuality, and the “ideals,” anything but heroic, which our bruised sensuality construes.

The disappearance of the hero from modern fiction suggests a parallel development—the disappearance of “character” itself. The new psychology persuades us that human action is a superficial, often a tortured and distorted reflection of personality; and the novel has turned as a result to a kind of characterization which depends on inward rather than outward behavior. But can one create a character clearly through his unconscious—his frustrated dreams, his psychical cravings, his unknown compulsions; can a character treated so exclusively from the inside persuade the reader that he lives at all in a world of externality? One gets a much sharper impression of Moll Flanders or Roxana from Defoe’s primitive method than one does of any woman in Lawrence, for all the subterranean exploration. So with Joyce: one must read “Ulysses” three or four times before one builds up a sense of his characters as people in an objective world. To read Virginia Woolf, especially her later novels, is to lie languorously in a warm bath of uncentered personality, of perceptions and feelings which do not pertain at all to character. Huxley, who is a satirist, is more concerned with externals than these three, yet he, similarly, depends too much on the mere description of mental states to achieve that sharp immediacy which is the strength of Dickens and Trollope and almost any nineteenth century novelist one could name. This is why Huxley’s witless characters are “real,” in this older sense, and why his thinkers are not.

The new psychology opened fresh channels of understanding to the novelist, but took its toll both in stature and in credibility. No hero can withstand a close examination of his erotic impulses, and very few characters can be made to live in the imagination in these terms only. Yet the use of this psychology may be in part an accommodation to history itself: if we have no heroes any more, it may be because our world supplies the individual with no certain values to be heroic about; and if character in the old sense no longer exists in the novel, it may be that character in this sense has indeed no approximation in life. Character is individuality, and heroism is the exaltation of individuality; and for this, in the simplest political sense, as in the largest intellectual sense, the modern world has left very little room. Today, when individuality is exalted, it gives us monsters.


Heroism is not the only commonplace of older fiction which has disappeared in the new. A series of technical devices, exploited throughout the last twenty-five years, have just as ruthlessly forced out of our fiction the author himself, plot, and all objective value.

With the first of these devices, the stream of consciousness technique, everyone is, again, familiar, for it inhabits and disturbs nearly every modern novel. The writer reproduces on the page as faithfully as he can everything which flows through his character’s mind at a given moment, and, in the classic examples such as “Ulysses,” he does this with the strictest possible fidelity to the idea of the mind as a stream, as flux. Novelists have always allowed their characters to reflect publicly, but that is a very different thing. In the older novel, the mind is revealed in concentration, in moments of organized intellectual activity, contemplating a problem presumably with a view to action. In the stream of consciousness novel, the thoughts of a character like Marian Bloom rush out in a stream, unorganized, decentralized, incoherent; a jumble of thoughts, half-thoughts, no-thoughts; of images and memories; of half-articulated desires; of ideas and the mere shadows of ideas; and none of these thoughts necessarily have a view to action. There is no concentration, no stricture but the expansive limits of personality itself. Personality has no reference to action; it is the very flux it contemplates.

The stream of consciousness is the literal application of the new psychology to technique. In the older novel it was assumed that characters in fiction, like men and women in life, lived in a universe which constantly offered them the choice of good and evil alternatives, and that they acted directly in terms of their choice. The novelist assumed a cause and effect relationship between will and action; and assumed further that the choice and resultant action determined something about the character in question. In Joyce and his heirs no such assumptions are made. We do not know our motives, most of our thoughts are never completed, and as often as not, when they do take shape in ideas, no action results, or if it sometimes does, it means nothing truly about the personality involved.

The dismissal of the concept of will, the reduction of personality to a congeries of sensation, this breakdown of the old assumption of the direct connection between character and action, has very important influences on plot, or organized story; but we will return to that in a clearer connection presently. The unique result of the method, as various writers have pointed out, is the exclusion of the author from the narrative. If the consciousness of an individual is to be presented truly, with complete psychological realism, then the author must never obstruct the stream, never violate the limitations of that consciousness. To comment is to falsify. The ideal of the method is the highest objectivity, as Joyce, in the character of Dedalus, has stated: “The personality of the artist . . . finally refines itself out of existence, im-personalizes itself . . .. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

In the nineteenth century novel the author was everywhere. Not only were his characters vehicles for his ideas, but he interpreted them and their ideas to us. Consider, from “Vanity Fair,” a vastly discursive novel, two sentences: “I don’t think they were unhappy. Perhaps they were a little prouder in their downfall than in their prosperity.” In Joyce such a statement would be impossible, and in Woolf and Huxley and even Lawrence the characters reveal themselves, their own unhappiness, their own pride, without much aid; and they reveal them only as they perceive them themselves. There is no omniscient point of view; God is indeed paring his fingernails. We observe experience no longer with the wisdom of our superiors, but with all the devastating and damaging limitations of perception of our peers.

The technique, then, forces the writer out of his narrative. But why does the writer submit, why does he so perversely choose the technique? Presumably because it allows for a more nearly exact rendering of human nature. But may it not also be because the author no longer has anything to say for himself? Is he perhaps not relieving himself of the responsibility of understanding the full implications of his material? Is it not possible that, unlike the nineteenth century novelist who had his ready frame of moral reference, our modern writer does not know what he can say?

Has the writer not come to suspect his wisdom? And if he has, has he not also suffered the most serious tragedy possible for the artist, who was once happily described as the unknown legislator of the world?


At least two concomitants of the stream of consciousness must be dealt with, however briefly: the new handling of time and the concept of symbolism. The first relates to the disappearance of plot; the second, to the disappearance of objective values.

Andre Gide, in his clever counterfeit novel, “The Counterfeiters,” made this observation, often quoted since: “My novel hasn’t got a subject . . .. Let’s say, if you prefer it, it hasn’t got one subject . . . ‘a slice of life,’ the naturalist school said. The great defect of that school is that it always cuts its slice in the same direction; in time, lengthwise. Why not in breadth? Or in depth? As for me I should like not to cut at all. Please understand; I should like to put everything into my novel.”

Gide describes the method which Joyce most nearly mastered. Formerly novels were constructed along the line of a series of related actions which reached a conclusion, which, in short, formed a coherent story, organized their action and made a plot. But “Ulysses,” like Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” is confined to one day, and neither gives much recognition to the cause and effect idea. One pictures a day in Dublin, the other in London, Both have a few central characters, but both include many others who amplify the scene, and not usually with dramatic but merely with ironic reference to the situations in which the main characters are simultaneously involved. Likewise, both cut down into the minds of their characters, and again, inflate every moment, but now with the maximum of psychological rather than of spatial content. “Finnegans Wake,” within the framework of the dreaming consciousness of a single man during a single night, attempts to compress the entire consciousness of universal man and the total experience of the race. There is a double tendency, then, in dealing with time: to decentralize it, to stretch it out; and to intensify it, to push it down. Both distort chronology as it had come to be thought of in the novel; both disregard action as such; both disregard the old formulas of conduct. When these two tendencies are combined—the disruption of the dramatic method, in which motives lead to actions and actions form a coherent pattern; and the disruption of time itself, which both decentralizes and intensifies chronology—when these tendencies are combined, fiction attains the maximum in realism but once again pays a price to its technical accomplishment. This time the price is plot itself, story. A novel like “Point Counterpoint” is above all else plotless. Fiction now destroys dramatic action by examining a moment forever, squeezing everything from it, as—in very different ways—in the novels of Lawrence and Virginia Woolf; or it destroys dramatic action by stretching a moment across many lives, as in Huxley or Joyce, or, to name an American, Dos Passos. The purpo-siveness of the older novel has disappeared in a conception which reduces life to an ironical and infinitely complex set of relationships which are above all accidental and to which the individual will is quite irrelevant.

If events are merely relative, values must be. It is not things in themselves which are true, but the perception of things; and perception varies with every individual and with every moment. This is the basis of the doctrine of French poetry known as symbolist; it has its analogy in a broader enquiry in semantics, which insists that words have no meanings outside their contexts. So ideas and events, in symbolism, have no meaning except in terms of the individual who perceives them, and of the moment in which he perceives them. For an extended definition the reader may go to Edmund Wilson’s well known essay, in which symbolism is described as the attempt by special language and by “complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors . . . to communicate [that is, to symbolize] unique personal feelings.”

In fiction, the use of symbolism has been less complex than in poetry. What it amounts to in the novel is an attempt to substitute a new kind of form for the old, linear plot structure, to devise what Huxley, in the glittering wake of Gide, termed “the musicalization of fiction.” This means simply that instead of following a clear dramatic line of actions, the novel, like music, would become thematic. The themes may be the recurrent preoccupations of the characters, certain images and ideas and needs associated with each character— the symbols by which we recognize him, the symbols which define his personality; or they may be the arbitrary imposition of musical pattern on the characters by the author. In Joyce it is both; in Woolf, largely the former; in Huxley, largely the latter.

Mrs. Woolf’s late novel, “The Waves,” is a good example of the method. This is no story at all, but a series of monologues which extend from the childhood well into the adulthood of six characters. Each monologist is presented in terms of certain reiterated patterns, certain fixed ideas, certain characteristic metaphors, certain ways of perceiving experience. “Point Counterpoint” is another example, but here ideas rather than metaphors characterize the individuals, and these are played against each other as in a fugue. The difference, of course, is that in music themes may be played simultaneously, whereas in language they can only follow one upon another, however closely. The analogy with music is inexact except in the single instance of Joyce’s final effort, “Finnegans Wake”; and here, of course, communication has in effect ceased.

If one may extend the meaning of symbolism, then, to indicate a method of characterization—in Woolf by recurrent images, in Huxley by recurrent ideas, in Lawrence by recurrent desires, and in Joyce by all these—and a certain method of playing these recurrences against each other, then symbolism may be used as the word to sum up nearly everything that we have said, for it insists upon the relativity of character and of experience and of value. We are no more than that which we are able to perceive, and each of us perceives things differently, each according to his “conditioning.” And nothing exists outside ourselves except as we perceive it. As there is no fixed “character,” but only a flux of sensation, so there can be no fixed moral values, but only a flux of ideas. Each of us believes what his experience has victimized him into believing, and, in the modern character as our best fiction has presented it, that is to say in nothing at all.


I have avoided direct reference to American fiction, for there is some evidence that the American literary situation is a different one, or may become different. We have had a “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and a “Grapes of Wrath.” That these, too, fall, in their picture of our world, into what I have called a literature of terror, is at least as important as the fact that they point a way out of terror. There is in American life an ambition toward a form of democracy, however inarticulate at the moment, which alone can save the individual his dignity, but it can do so only if the individual submits to some form of intelligent organization which will pare off those vestiges of eighteenth and nineteenth century individualism which are now merely eccentric, and which will recognize and assimilate the intellectual developments of modern life. Only when we have admitted the necessity of quite austere organization in modern life will we be able to counter the vicious and destructive organization of much of Europe with a healthy and constructive organization of our own; and only then will the promise of a better world which is implied in such very occasional works as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Grapes of Wrath” be capable of development. In the meantime, however, the bulk of our most brilliant talent in fiction has pictured the world precisely as have those authors whom we have discussed. The earlier Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wescott, Aiken, Faulkner, O’Hara, Boyle, and Porter in their special way, Prokosch, Williams, even Dos Passos—all these enormously gifted writers have, usually against their instincts, viewed with horror the spectacle of modern life; and their fiction has shared the characteristic marks of British fiction.

That was for all of them historical necessity, decreed by the disappearance of an established frame of moral reference which has not been replaced. At no time, one may repeat, in the history of the novel have we been invited to witness such a formidable array of talent as in these writers; and never before has the novel had so little to say. If Virginia Woolf, for example, took to writing novels which were more like extended imagistic poems, that is because she had nothing to say; and if Joyce took to humming tunes in counterpoint, tunes literary, sexual, philological, and anthropological, that is because he, in the vastness of his pathetic erudition, had nothing to say. Lawrence tried to say something, but his very message consisted of a flight from ideas, an indulgence in a kind of anti-intellectualism and pro-animalism which merely fixed the vicious circle. Huxley, too, has attempted to say something, but in its way, his message of the cultivation of spirit is as anti-intellectual, as disgruntled with value, as Lawrence’s.

History had hamstrung these men. It took away their valid subject matter and gave them nothing in return. The technical elaborations which they pursued took away from them, one after another, the main ingredients of the novel as it had developed before them: the author’s own privilege of wisdom, the heroic element, the plot, which is the representation of purposive action, and those objective values which alone give meaning to character. What did this leave? It left a glittering technical accomplishment and a picture of man as the victim of flux, of his own animalism; of man as disenabled for meaningful action and, like the writers themselves, the pawn of history.

This is the dilemma. The motive that impels men to write at all is the conviction that man and his experience are worth celebration; but in the modern world these writers found nothing to sustain their conviction, and the technique which they developed instead only pushed man lower than they had found him. Is it the weakness of the men or the anarchic terror of the moment which compels some of them finally to say: “I have a feeling I shall go mad. I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times. I hear voices and I cannot concentrate on my work. I fought against it. I cannot fight any longer.”


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