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Personality and Demonic Possession

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

I think that there is an interesting subject of investigation, for the student of traditions, in the history of Blasphemy, and the anomalous position of that term in the modern world. It is a curious survival in a society which has for the most part ceased to be capable of exercising that activity or of recognising it. I am persuaded that pretty generally, when that term is used at all, it is used in a sense which is only the shadow of the original. For modern blasphemy is merely a department of bad form: and just as, in countries which still possess a Crown, people are usually (and quite rightly) shocked by any public impertinence concerning any member of their Royal Family, they are still shocked by any public impertinence towards a Deity for whom they feel privately no respect at all; and both feelings are supported by the conservatism of those who have anything to lose by social changes. Yet people nowadays are inclined to tolerate and respect any violation which is presented to them as inspired by “serious” purposes; whereas the only disinfectant which makes either blasphemy or obscenity sufferable is the sense of humour: the indecent that is funny may be the legitimate source of innocent merriment, while the absence of humour reveals it as purely disgusting.

I do not wish to be understood as undertaking a defence of blasphemy in the abstract. I am only pointing out that it is a very different thing in the modern world than it would be in an “age of faith”; just as a magistrate’s conception of blasphemy will probably be very different from that of a good Catholic, and his objections to it will be for very different reasons. The whole question of censorship is now of course reduced to ludicrous inconsistency, and is likely to remain so as long as the morals of the State are not those of the Church. But my point is that blasphemy is not a matter of good form but of right belief; no one can possibly blaspheme in any sense except that in which a parrot may be said to curse, unless he profoundly believes in that which he profanes; and when anyone who is not a believer is shocked by blasphemy he is shocked merely by a, breach of good form; and it is a nice question whether, being in a state of intellectual error, he is or is not committing a sin in being shocked for the wrong reasons. It is certainly my opinion that first-rate blasphemy is one of the rarest things in literature, for it requires both literary genius and profound faith, joined in a mind in a peculiar and unusual state of spiritual sickness. I repeat that I am not defending blasphemy; I am reproaching a world in which blasphemy is impossible.

My next point is a more delicate one to handle. One can conceive of blasphemy as doing moral harm to feeble or perverse souls; at the same time one must recognize that the modern environment is so unfavourable to faith that it produces fewer and fewer individuals capable of being injured by blasphemy. One would expect, therefore, that (whatever it may have been at other times) blasphemy would be less employed by the Forces of Evil than at any other time in the last two thousand years. Where blasphemy might once have been a sign of spiritual corruption, it might now be taken rather as a symptom that the soul was still alive, or even that it was recovering animation: for the perception of Good and Evil—whatever choice we may make—is the first requisite of spiritual life. We should do well, therefore, to look elsewhere than to the blasphemer, in the traditional sense, for the most fruitful operations of the Evil Spirit today.

I regret, for my present purposes, that I have not a more intimate, extensive and accurate knowledge of the English novelists of the last hundred years, and therefore that I feel a little insecure of my generalisations. But it seems to me that the eminent novelists who are more nearly contemporary to us, have been more concerned than their predecessors— consciously or not—to impose upon their readers their own personal view of life, and that this is merely part of the whole movement of several centuries towards the aggrandisement and exploitation of personality. I do not suggest that “personality” is an illicit intruder; I imagine that the admirers of Jane Austen are all fascinated by something that may be called her personality. But personality, with Jane Austen, with Dickens, and with Thackeray, was more nearly in its proper place. The standards by which they criticised their world, if not very lofty ones, were at least not of their own making. In Dickens’s novels, for instance, the religion is still of the good old torpid eighteenth-century kind, dressed up with a profusion of holly and turkey, and supplemented by strong humanitarian zeal. These novelists were still observers, however superficial—in contrast, for instance, to Flaubert—we find their observations to be. They are orthodox enough according to the light of their day: the first suspicion of heresy creeps in with a writer who, at her best, had much profounder moral insight and passion than these, but who unfortunately combined it with the dreary rationalism of the epoch of which she is one of the most colossal monuments: George Eliot. George Eliot seems to me of the same tribe as all the serious and eccentric moralists we have had since: we must respect her for being a serious moralist, but deplore her individualistic morals. What I have been leading up to is the following assertion: that when morals cease to be a matter of tradition and orthodoxy —that is, of the habits of the community, formulated, corrected, and elevated by the continuous thought and direction of the Church—and when each man is to elaborate his own, then personality becomes a thing of alarming importance.

The work of the late Thomas Hardy represents an interesting example of a powerful personality uncurbed by any institutional attachment or by submission to any objective beliefs; unhampered by any ideas, or even by what sometimes acts as a partial restraint upon inferior writers, the desire to please a large public. He seems to me to have written as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can; and the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying communication. He was indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing: he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly; at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good. In consequence of his self-absorption, he makes a great deal of landscape; for romantic landscape is a passive creature which lends itself to an author’s mood. It is fitted too for the purposes of an author who is interested not at all in men’s minds, but only in their emotions; and perhaps only in men as vehicles for emotions. It is only, indeed, in their emotional paroxysms that most of his characters come alive. This extreme emotionalism seems to me a symptom of decadence; it is a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age, to believe that there is something admirable for its own sake in violent emotion, whatever the emotion or whatever its object. But it is by no means self-evident that human beings are most real when most violently excited; violent passions do not in themselves differentiate men from each other, but rather tend to reduce them to the same state; and the passion has significance only in relation to the character and behaviour of the man at other moments of his life and in other contexts. Furthermore, strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men; those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict there is no meaning. But as the majority is capable neither of strong emotion nor of strong resistance, it always inclines, unless instructed to the contrary, to admire passion for its own sake; and if somewhat deficient in vitality, people imagine passion to be the surest evidence of vitality. This in itself may go towards accounting for Hardy’s popularity.

What again and again introduces a note of falsity into Hardy’s novels is that he will leave nothing to nature, but will always be giving one last turn of the screw himself, and of his motives for so doing I have the gravest suspicion. In “The Mayor of Casterbridge”—which has always seemed to me his finest novel as a whole—he comes the nearest to producing an air of inevitability, and of making the crises seem the consequences of the character of Henchard; the arrangement by which the hero, leaning over a bridge, finds himself staring at his effigy in the stream below is a masterly tour de force. This scene is, however, as much by arrangement as less successful ones in which the motive intrudes itself more visibly; as, for instance, the scene in “Far from the Madding Crowd” in which Bathsheba unscrews Fanny Robin’s coffin, which seems to me deliberately faked. And by this I mean that the author seems to me to be deliberately relieving some emotion of his own at the expense of the reader. It is a refined form of torture on the part of the writer, and a refined form of self-torture on the part of the reader. And this brings me for the first time to the point of this essay.

I have concerned myself elsewhere with illustrating the limiting and crippling effect of a, separation from tradition and orthodoxy upon certain writers whom I nevertheless hold up for admiration for what they have attempted against great obstacles. Here I am concerned with the intrusion of the diabolic into modern literature in consequence of the same lamentable state of affairs; and it was for this reason that I took the pains at the beginning to point out that blasphemy is not a matter with which we are concerned. I am afraid that even if one can entertain the notion of a positive power for evil working through human agency, one may still have a very inaccurate notion of what Evil is, and will find it difficult to believe that it might operate through men of genius of the most excellent character. I doubt whether what I am saying can convey very much to anyone for whom the doctrine of Original Sin is not a very real and tremendous thing. I can only ask the reader to examine the texts, and then reconsider my remarks. And one of the most significant of the Hardy texts is a volume of short stories, indeed of masterly short stories, which has never received enough examination from that point of view: I mean “A Group of Noble Dames.” Here, for one thing, you get essential Hardy without the Wessex staging; without the scenery dear to the Anglo-Saxon heart or the period peasants pleasing to the metropolitan imagination. Not all of these stories, of course, illustrate my point equally well; the best for my purpose, to which I refer the reader, rather than take up his time to less purpose by summarising the plot, is “Barbara of the House of Grebe.” This is not realism; it is, as Hardy catalogues it, “romance and fantasy,” with which Hardy can do exactly what he wants to do. I do not object to horror: “Oedipus Rex” is a most horrible plot, from which the last drop of horror is extracted by the dramatist; and among Hardy’s contemporaries, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and James’s “Turn of the Screw” are tales of horror. But there is horror in the real world; and in these works of Sophocles, Conrad, and James we are still in a world of Good and Evil. In “Barbara of the House of Grebe” we seem to be introduced into a world of pure Evil. It would seem to have been written solely to provide a satisfaction for some morbid emotion.

I find this same strain of morbidity in the work of a man whom I regard as a very much greater genius, if not a greater artist, than Hardy: D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence has three aspects, and it is very difficult to do justice to all. I do not expect to be able to do so. The first is the ridiculous: his lack of sense of humour, a certain snobbery, a lack not so much of information a,s of the critical faculties which education should give, and an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking. Of this side of Lawrence, the brilliant exposure by Mr. Wyndham Lewis in “Paleface” is by far the most conclusive criticism that has been made. Second, there is the extraordinarily keen sensibility and capacity for profound intuition—intuition from which he commonly drew the wrong conclusions. Third, there is a distinct morbidity and hypertrophy of personality. Unfortunately, it is necessary to keep all of these aspects in mind in order to criticise the writer fairly; and this, in such close perspective, is almost impossible. I shall no doubt appear to give excessive prominence to the third; but that, after all, is what has been least successfully considered.

I have touched elsewhere upon the deplorable religious upbringing which gave Lawrence his lust for intellectual independence: like most people who do not know what orthodoxy is, he hated it. With the more intimate reasons, of heredity and environment, for eccentricity of thought and feeling I am not concerned: too many people have made them their business already. And I have already mentioned the insensibility to ordinary social morality, which is so alien to my mind that I am completely baffled by it as a monstrosity. The point is that Lawrence started life so free from any restriction of tradition or institution that he had no guidance except the Inner Light, the most untrustworthy and deceitful guide that ever offered itself to wandering humanity. It was peculiarly so for Lawrence, who does not appear to have been gifted with the faculty of self-criticism, except in flashes, even to the extent of ordinary worldly shrewdness. Of divine illumination, it may be said that probably every man knows when he has it, but that any man is likely to think that he has it when he has it not; and even when he has had it, the daily man that he is may draw the wrong conclusions from the enlightenment which the momentary man has received: no one, in short, can be the sole judge of whence his inspiration comes or what it means. A man like Lawrence, therefore, with his acute sensibility, violent prejudices and passions, and lack of intellectual and social training, is admirably fitted to be an instrument for forces of good or for forces of evil; or as we might expect, partly for one and partly for the other. A trained mind like that of Mr. Joyce is always aware what master it is serving; an untrained mind, a soul destitute of humility and filled with self-righteousness, is a blind servant and a fatal leader. It would seem that for Lawrence any spiritual force was good, and that evil resided only in the absence of spirituality. Most people, no doubt, need to be aroused to the perception of the simple difference between the spiritual and the material; and Lawrence never forgot, and never mistook, this distinction. But most people are only very little alive; and to awaken them to the spiritual is a very great responsibility: it is only when they are so awakened that they are capable of real Good, but at the same time they become first capable of Evil. Lawrence lived all his life, I should imagine, on the spiritual level; no man was less a sensualist. Against the living death of modern material civilisation he spoke again and again, and, even if these dead could speak, what he said is unanswerable. As a criticism of the modern world, “Fantasia of the Unconscious” is a book to keep at hand and reread. In contrast to Nottingham, London, or industrial America, the capering redskins of his “Mornings in Mexico” seem to represent Life. So they do; but that is not the last word, but only the first.

The intensity of the man’s vision is spiritual, but spiritually sick. The demonic powers found an instrument of far greater range, delicacy, and power in the author of “The Prussian Officer” than in the author of “A Group of Noble Dames”; and the tale which I should use as an example, “The Shadow in the Rose Garden,” can be matched by several others. I have not read all of Lawrence’s late and posthumous works, which are numerous. In some respects, he may have progressed: as Mr. E. F. W. Tomlin has suggested, his early belief in Life may have passed over, as a really serious belief in Life must, into a belief in Death. But I cannot see much development in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Our old acquaintance, the gamekeeper, turns up again: the social obsession which makes his well-born—or almost well-born—ladies offer themselves to—or make use of—plebeians, springs from the same morbidity which makes his other female characters bestow their favours upon savages. The author of that book seems to me to have been a very sick man indeed.

There is, I believe, a very great deal to be learned from Lawrence; though those who are most capable of exercising the judgement necessary to extract the lesson, may not be those who are most in need of it. That we can and ought to reconcile ourselves to Liberalism, Progress, and Modern Civilisation is a proposition which we need not have waited for Lawrence to condemn; and it matters a, good deal in what name we condemn them. I fear that Lawrence’s work may appeal, not to those who are well and able to discriminate, but to the sick and debile and confused; and will appeal not to what remains of health in them, but to their sickness. Nor will many even accept his doctrine as he would give it, but will be busy after their own inventions. The number of people in possession of any criteria for discriminating between good and evil is very small; the number of the half-alive, hungry for any form of spiritual experience, or what offers itself as experience, high or low, good or bad, is considerable. My own generation has not served them very well. Never has the printing-press been so busy, and never have such varieties of buncombe and false doctrine come from it. Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! O Israel, thy prophets have been like foxes in the waste places. . . . And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face: shoidd I be inquired of at all by them?

I would add a few words of retrospect and summary, partly as a reminder of how little, in so short a, space, one can undertake to say about such a serious subject as this. In an age of unsettled beliefs and enfeebled tradition the man of letters, the poet, and the novelist, are in a situation dangerous for themselves and for their readers. I have tried to safeguard myself from being taken to be merely a sentimental admirer of some actual or imaginary past, and from being taken as a faker of traditions. Tradition by itself is not enough; it must be perpetually criticised and brought up to date under the supervision of what I call orthodoxy; and for the lack of this supervision it is now the sentimental tenuity that we find it. Most “defenders of tradition” are mere conservatives, unable to distinguish between the permanent and the temporary, the essential and the accidental. Where there is no external test of the validity of a writer’s work, we fail to distinguish between the truth of his view of life and the personality which makes it plausible; so that in our reading, we are simply yielding ourselves to one seductive personality after another. The first requisite usually held up by the promoters of personality is that a man should “be himself”; and this “sincerity” is considered more important than that the self in question should, socially and spiritually, be a good or a bad one.

This view of personality is merely an assumption on the part of the modern world, and is no more tenable than several other views which have been held at various times and in several places. The personality thus expressed, the personality which fascinates us in the work of philosophy or art, tends naturally to be the unregenerate personality, partly self-deceived and partly irresponsible, and because of its freedom, terribly limited by prejudice and self-conceit, capable of much good or great mischief according to the natural goodness or impurity of the man: and we are all, naturally, impure. All that I have been able to do here is to suggest that there are standards of criticism, not ordinarily in use, which we may apply to whatever is offered to us as works of philosophy or of art, which might help to render them safer and more profitable for us.


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