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Ideas or Ideals?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

Amok. By Stefan Zweig. New York: The Viking Press. $1.50. From Day to Day. By Ferdynand Goetel. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. The Road Back. By Erich Maria Remarque. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.50. The Pure in Heart. By Franz Werfel. New York: Simon and Schuster, $3.50.

In the schools, when we teach the history of literature, we spend time, more perhaps than is necessary, laying bare the idea behind the poem or essay or story, as though, having done that, we had opened the doors to the enjoyment of books. We explain the intellectual content of a poem because of necessity we must do that: every reader may, not grasp the significance of the author’s work; yet every reader ought to know what, step by step, he has read. This is a reasonable defense for a practical course of action. Such activity is far, however, from the true appreciation of literature: it gives the pedants professional delight; it hallows the dry-as-dust; it glorifies Burke’s “Conciliation.”

Literature, it seems to me, depends little upon the novelty or complexity of its ideas, despite the urgent talk of those who profess wisdom. Intellectual plan there ought to be, I suppose, clear expression, a mind in control. Blake ought to think sharply; Wordsworth ought to intimate plainly; Bed-does ought to despair cogently—though their ideas may be doubtfully true or demonstrably wrong. Yet, their ideas right or wrong, they may, yet write great literature. Or—more raildly—they may write beautifully with no new or startling ideas: this is perhaps my safest ground. Rousseau’s “Emile” belongs properly to the literature of education; to put it in the world of “Faust” and of “Lear” is to make both it and the critic somewhat absurd. “Faust,” by the way, carrying debatable idea-stuff, enters the world of great literature in spite of ideas, because of its other excellences—it gives the idea-conflict flesh and blood habitation and relates them to human emotion, to an individual’s life. “Lear” is a world poem because of its poetic intensity, first, and because of its people, second. Its idea—its philosophy good or bad—does not really matter.

In the novel, particularly, the importance of the abstract idea dwindles. Moreover, books in which the idea of the story is especially startling or emphatic are not great books as literature. There is a great deal of buzzing thought in Wells’ “Ann Veronica,” in “The World of William Clis-sold,” and in “Meanwhile,” but the great books of Wells are “Polly,” “Kipps,” and “Tono-Bungay.” Charlotte Bronte is most dull when she is most full of ideas about the new woman. So, too, is Elizabeth Gaskell when she preaches or builds idea characters; she is best in moments when people of no abstract significance live and move, as in “Cranford.” Jane Austen is a satisfactory example of an English novelist who keeps ideas in their proper place. “Vanity Fair” is not great because of the communication of anything new in ideas; its people live.

How do characters like Becky Sharp live? They live according to an ideal code which they and their author recognize and understand, in common. The book is not more concerned with a representation of this code, in the abstract, than it is with its people who live by it. Rather, the people as they live, measure up and do not measure up to their ideals for social behavior, develop character, come to an emotional understanding of the significance of life—they learn how to live, even when they cannot codify the answer. An ideal, even a Platonic conception of perfect life, helps rather than harms the achievement of a great novel of character; the prevalence of ideas—contemporary itches or grand cosmic schemes or special psychological pleadings—tends to kill characters, and novels too.

A two-fold affliction has troubled the modern novel. It has, in critically realistic novels, suffered from too many ideas, too many abstractions debated in a tale. The critical realist has his little contemporary axe to grind, once with city mechanism, again with small town deadness and decay, and again with country, monotony. The people of such novels lose their individual meaning. Second, in these Hemingway latter days, what are supposed to be characters move without any rules or ideals for conduct. They eat, talk, drink wine endlessly, and go to bed with each other joylessly. They do nothing with purpose, and they feel no lack of purpose. There is no will to do anything and no will not to do anything. Their life has no inner spring. They have no ideals because, I suppose, the fathers and grandfathers of their authors had too many or talked about them too much or had, according to the sophisticated children, the wrong ideals. Something of all this has affected the continental novel for a long time and, more recently, the novel of England and of America. The four novels under discussion in this review reflect variously the dangers of ideas and the presence of ideals. They, are significant as types of a hundred others which might be named.

All four of these novels are remarkable for their despair, for the absence of forward-looking courage. The war has drained out of Europe what America—up to this moment—has never lacked, a sublime trust in the future. The world in Europe has tumbled about its people’s heads and has brought clattering down with it their faith in the virtue of ambition, in the chances for happiness, in the sane plan of life. Consequently, as novels reflect that despair, they look backwards with a kind of unhealthy recollection at both the joy and the grief through which the author and his characters have passed. The novels, by the way, seem heavily autobiographical. I do not mean that the hero in each resembles the author, but that the events and problems are those about which the writer himself puzzles. In Willa Gather’s more objective fiction, or in Edith Wharton’s, for example, the problems of the men and women in the book are not inevitably difficulties of the author’s as well. As a kind of summary before the argument of the case, this might be said: these new foreign novels all show an absence of ideality and an over-abundance of ideas. All tend to sacrifice character reality because little emphasis is put upon the character as the story center or because other story elements overshadow its persons. All have a surface brilliance which amounts to a hard glaze upon carefully shaped material. That the pattern of the material seldom carries with it much of a sense of the fullness of ordinary life is, I suppose, to be taken as an indication of the belief on the part of the writers that they., at present, know no ordinary life, that in Europe there is no spiritual peace, and that the essence of fife there reveals itself as theatrical or dramatic, with a sense of pleasurable pain—pain, that is, pleasurable upon recollection.

Stefan Zweig’s “Amok” does not suffer from too many ideas, from opinions strenuously presented or argued, or from too much confused philosophizing about the political and economic stresses of modern Europe. It is very short, a bit over a hundred pages, and it is planned for compression and for brisk movement, It is heavily plotted, heavily dramatic, highly colored. As a piece of prose—even in translation—it shows skill: a feeling for story values, for contrasts, for the expression of its abnormal, passionate moods by means of the most vivid possible detail. Stefan Zweig exhibits remarkable artistic definiteness: he proposes, plans, and executes with sureness.

There remains, however, the confusing problem of discovering a meaning for the story. This brutally intense account of a disgraced doctor’s tropical love affair and its tragic end in a woman’s death and the doctor’s suicide can be viewed satisfactorily as a horror story, a mood picture, intense, complete in its intensity, and having no meaning beyond that kind of Poe-esque, fictional thrill. In so limited a fashion as this, the book succeeds. It is dramatically ugly, and can make a reader shiver with its bestiality set in a romantically harmonious frame of an ocean voyage on which the story is told. In a larger sense, however, the book lacks significance. The story of a white man’s losing his mind, self-control, and decency in the tropics is already trite, and Stefan Zweig does nothing here to make that stock situation take on a new meaning. His main character is a brute, a brute somewhat unfairly shipped off to disgrace in the first place, but a brute nevertheless. There is no glimmer of any decent impulse in the man, from the very start of his trouble when he stole from the hospital safe to the time when he asks a meaninglessly immoral woman to consider him as a lover rather than as a medical adviser. The critical quarrel here seems to me to be not with the immorality of the picture—sure as that is— but with the utter lack of any literary significance. Having shared the experience of the wicked, one comes out merely the worse; one ought, when sharing the experience of the wicked, to come out somewhat the better. I take, perhaps, too moralistic a view. Yet this, to my mind, is the effect of true tragedy.

The lack of ideality, then—the lack of character significance—rather than any lack of ideas, makes “Amok” a book of little moment, easily read, easily forgotten, a book thin and empty. That it will reach “popularity” of a sort is fairly certain, for it deals with details and themes still calculated as shocking by those people whose delight in books rests upon so unsubstantial a foundation.

Ferdynand GoetePs “From Day to Day” is also sensational because of its plan and style. A long novel, it consists of an experiment not without value in this case. I should not want to find the plan of this book become commonplace: to have the private life of every author (as a dramatic character, that is) slipped into his story in sandwich fashion, between the chapters, would be a tedious procedure. It is that, at times, even here. Yet, since the main character in both diary and novel is the same person, there is a real fullness gained by this mingling of the war romantic novel and the later realistic novel as they fuse and make one story by the end of the book. Psychologically the main character is soundly and fully given: he remains the center of both stories, and he functions the better in both for what one learns of him in two very different ways of life. That he has no ideals; that he fives flippantly in a society which is dying around him; that he seems never touched to any sympathetic wonder about unhappiness not peculiarly his own—all of these, I suppose, are signs of his own character and of his limitations. But he is set in a real world, and its ordinary activities even under stress of excitement are discernible. Here is no tenuous mood of horror: rather, an everyday life moves the people on and makes them adjust wills and whims to it.

There are occasional moments of tenderness and insight. The “author’s” talk about the terror of seeing a little child ill is moving and justly sentimental; his descriptive mood-pictures of life on the farm and of his love affair there have feeling well carried over into words. The brutal natures of the grown people as they treat each other suspiciously is strange and disturbing, for the mean comedy of their animosities suggests a world of neurotics whom society has made incapable of trusting it or each other. This shrewd and shrewish tone, this sneer as we see motives and desires, shows, perhaps, more of bad health and less of sophistication than Ferdynand Goetel himself would care to admit.

Despite all of this, I must remember the hold the book had upon me, the undeniable drive of its vivid scenes, the unhappiness and the mental confusion of its people as they lived their convincing contemporary, lives. If they lacked ideals, one felt that they themselves felt the lack and missed ideals, too, and that a code, undiscoverable, would be welcome. “From Day to Day,” in its lack of purpose and aim, represents its day. That it may ever be considered anything more than an able contemporary novel, even in its native land, is not to be believed.

Remarque’s “The Road Back” is the most naive book of the four. Remarque is scarcely a novelist at all. He is an unsophisticated schoolboy, who has been hurt dreadfully by a war, and he is articulate about his pain. He knows how to tell a story; he sees vividly and he finds vivid reportorial detail; he is strenuously concrete. He can make one’s stomach turn, and he wants to do that. Both his books are tracts: the one hates war and the other hates the effect of war. Both lack scope and wisdom. Both, by their horrible truth, may help make war less frequent. May both succeed!

Remarque is a tremendous idealist. His ideals become ideas, in the sense of abstracting themselves from his dramatic characterizations and becoming problem themes. All his school warriors wished fearfully to work happily and find peace in a simple world. All, through the thick-headed, grafting selfishness of thedr elders in Germany and elsewhere, were denied that peace. All, upon return home, found that their violent hopes and their war-fed vision of freedom were not to be realized: the stay-at-homes still had the world under conventional control. Literally, they all go mad at the discovery. Revolution, in this as in “The Pure in Heart,” seems a way out of pain. They soon, however, learn their folly. Vivid, then, as “The Road Back” is, it sets itself as propaganda, extraordinarily effective, to be sure, but it belongs to that ephemeral shelf of books upon which sits “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Under Fire,” and “A Son at the Front.”

I am unwilling to clutter up a criticism with notes, but I must add a word, here, about the translation. “The Road Back” is, in general, finely, done; as English, it is good prose. Why, then, the combination of “Ach, love—” on page 246? Why not, “Oh, love—” or “Ah, love—?” Is the German beer-and-pretzels, romantically conventional mood so much a literary commonplace that a serious moment in “The Road Back” must connote a comic-strip German stickily drooling “Ach, love—?” If “Ach,” why not “Liebe”? “Ach, Liebe—” is artistically right.

Franz Werfel’s “The Pure in Heart” stands, in my mind, as the best contemporary foreign novel I have read. I am talking now of stories written in Europe since the War. It suggests a mind of maturity and insight behind it, an author with poise and justice as steady attributes of his thinking. It has, too, a good character fullness; the story never degenerates into essay-speculation free from any connection with the man who is the center of the book. Although there is in it much philosophizing, all such abstract material makes up part of the world in which Ferdinand himself lives; it never appears in essay form, aimed by the author at the reader.

“The Pure in Heart” is a childhood, boyhood, and youth life-history of an innocent, gentle boy forced from happy family life, through cruelty and horror, into a mature stoicism and dreamy reminiscent aloofness. The ugly power throughout his life is the war machine and its bullying servants. He and others like him, pure in heart, find human brutality incomprehensible. They get on by avoiding conflict as much as they can and by. ignoring actual pain. They escape into recollection, whenever the present grows vile. A very near counterpart to “The Pure in Heart” is C. E. Montague’s “Rough Justice.” Like the earlier book, “The Pure in Heart” traces the path any gentle idealist must follow, The plight of Ferdinand is made worse, as was that of Montague’s hero, by the bad luck of war, which intensified ordinary traits of potential bullies by giving them a chance to be themselves.

The best parts of the story connect the hero’s life with the faithful love of Barbara, his old nurse. Becanse this is true, â–  the most vivid scenes occur near the start, where Barbara en* ters most often. Later episodes, purporting to show postwar decay, too frequently degenerate into cinema-like “shots” of continental depravity, although seldom are such scenes repulsive. The author’s theme—-that love among men must be the path to common happiness—is clearly indicated by the wish for affection and peace which fills Ferdinand and which makes him hunt for friendship among many people-Jews and Christians, he cares not which—and by the real peace which Ferdinand finds in the self-sacrificing love of the old nurse. If the picture is vague at times, if the speeches are too full of grand talk, if propaganda intrudes, if the view of contemporary life is pessimistic and implies degeneracy, too frequently, the book has, nevertheless, two saving graces. It is, above all, well put together. The plan is artistically sound. One recognizes, at once, Franz Wer-fel’s skill in presenting his hero near the crest of his life, reflecting on it, as we watch. We see the Doctor on shipboard; then come four life fragments; then we return to the Doctor and the ship; and the full significance of his act at the start is thoroughly understood. The recollective scheme is perfectly adapted to the character of the introvert whose story we read. And step by step, each life-scene adds to the clear unity of the complex Doctor Ferdinand R—.

But, above all, sometimes because of other qualities or elements and sometimes in spite of them, “The Pure in Heart” is a moving narrative which offers a reader true artistic pleasure in sharing, for a time, the significant life of one man. He is not an important creature; his life is not a melodramatically lurid affair; but he lives as a man and he stands for more than he is. An inactive idealist—except upon one heroic occasion—this modern Hamlet makes us feel how precarious is any happiness in life, how doubtful the course, and yet, how earnestly right living must be sought. Without startling or tremendously profound ideas, but with an idealism one recognizes as humanly necessary, though impossible, a young boy, in “The Pure in Heart” learns what it means to live.


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